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National Organic Program: Priority Setting and Continuous Improvement Update 

Since April 2021, when the Organic Trade Association (OTA) celebrated the introduction of the Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act (CIAO) by our champions in Congress, the association has been hard at work to keep continuous improvement and accountability moving forward. OTA and our members have continued to advocate for a more transparent and streamlined organic rulemaking process so that the industry can keep pace with the demands of a changing marketplace and consumer expectations. In reviewing the National Organic Program’s (NOP) latest rulemaking priority setting process, which began at the beginning of 2022, and the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 appropriations language advanced by Congress, we see strong evidence of continuous improvement in action.  

CIAO and FY 2022 Appropriations 

When Congress passed its Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations legislation, which included increased funding for the National Organic Program, they also attached report language on continuous improvement in organic. This language was requested by OTA, the House Organic Caucus, and organic champions on the Hill. The bill included the following guidelines for NOP: 

“Within the funding provided, AMS is urged to focus on standards development and addressing the backlog of National Organic Standards Board recommendations. Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Committee directs the agency to publish in the Federal Register and seek public comment on an Organic Improvement Action Plan that identifies and describes the rationale for recommendations approved by the National Organic Standards Board by a decisive vote and submitted to USDA that have not been implemented by a final rule or any other agency action.”  

CIAO and the National Organic Program 

OTA has consistently urged NOP to improve transparency around the status of unaddressed National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommendations to update organic practice standards and to expand opportunities for the public to weigh-in on prioritization. In February 2022, NOP opened a comment period requesting feedback on the standards backlog, the agency’s rulemaking priorities for the year ahead, as well as how NOP can improve the process by which standards are updated. Additionally, NOP provided additional details in the Federal Register as to why some of the recommendations in the backlog had yet to be implemented. Increasing transparency and accountability into NOP’s decision-making process was among OTA’s primary demands in the CIAO bill. The association was extremely pleased to see the positive steps taken by NOP, including opening the comment period in a timely manner and following up with a public listening session one month later. At the close of the comment period, nearly 600 comments were submitted by stakeholders. 

OTA’s comments recommend prioritizing the backlog of NOSB Recommendations for organic practice standards such as greenhouse/container production, mushroom production, and strengthening organic seed usage. Our comments also urged NOP to prioritize capacity-building for ongoing development and implementation of standards and to devote additional resources and staffing exclusively to standards writing and development. OTA presented a multi-stage action plan (developed by our CIAO Task Force) to advance all outstanding recommendations over a reasonable timeframe by grouping multiple NOSB recommendations into single regulatory actions. 

At the April 26, 2022 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting, NOP provided a verbal report summarizing the comments they had received and outlined next steps. Stakeholders broadly agreed that NOP must make progress in addressing NOSB recommendations in a timelier manner and encouraged an ongoing process of prioritization and reporting. The most notable highlight from NOP’s report, was the progress being made on strengthening organic seed usage. Most comments submitted, including OTA’s, ranked strengthening organic seed usage as a high priority and cited concerns over the low use of organic seed and stagnation of organic seed research. According to NOP, the public comments submitted – in combination with the powerful Organic Seed Alliance’s “State of Organic Seed” report – provided very good feedback and historical information that will be helpful in re-evaluating and elevating this priority going forward. 

Lastly, USDA’s Spring 2022 Unified Agenda shows progress on three additional rules which OTA has recommended for prioritization: mushrooms, apiculture, and pet food standards. These three rules were added to the Unified Agenda last fall as “long term actions,” but now appear on the Spring 2022 list of regulatory priorities. 

CIAO Background 

In developing CIAO (H.R. 2918), the OTA worked with Congress to bring together a broad coalition of industry leaders and policymakers. CIAO was introduced in the House on April 30, 2021 with bipartisan support by Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rodney Davis (R-IL), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Ron Kind (D-WI). The legislation represents the most significant assessment to date of USDA’s track record on advancing organic standards. If passed, USDA would be required to advance and implement recommendations from the organic industry in a timely manner and to ensure the continuous improvement of organic standards. It puts in place an improved federal process for the oversight of organic that will bring the government up to speed with the modern organic sector, and will enable organic’s improvement and advancement to continue to forge ahead into the future. 

Key elements of the bill include the following: 

Clears the backlog of stalled standards by requiring USDA to issue an Organic Improvement Action Plan comprised of previous NOSB recommendations related to organic practice standards that have not been implemented.  

The plan must include detailed timelines, prioritization, and implementation plans for dealing with each recommendation.  

Commits USDA to continuous improvement in organic. When the National Organic Standards Board passes a recommendation that is supported by the majority of the board (2/3 affirmative vote), USDA would be required to issue a final rule implementing the recommendation within one year or provide explanation if they choose not to implement a particular recommendation. 

Enhances accountability and improves oversight of USDA accredited third party certification agents by including the specific evaluation of how certifiers are interpreting and implementing new regulations and updates to the standards.