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How Organic Standards Are Made

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To understand how organic standards are made, step back in time to your high school civics class, where you learned about how a bill becomes a law.

A person or a group of people comes up with an idea for a law and presents this idea to someone in Congress. The congressperson then drafts the idea in the form of a bill and puts it before the rest of Congress for a vote. From there, the bill may be sent to committees for revision and review. Public comments on the bill are often offered at this time. If the committee accepts the revised bill, it goes first to one house and then the other house of Congress for a vote.  If both houses vote to accept the bill, the bill is sent to the President for his approval. If that approval is received, the bill becomes a law.

The very same process was used to create the law that governs organic agriculture and products. In 1990, the U.S. Congress adopted the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. This action was followed by over a decade of public input and discussion, resulting in the establishment of the National Organic Program (NOP) and the placement of organic under the federal government's jurisdiction. Today, NOP, which is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, develops, implements, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards for organic agricultural products.  NOP also accredits the certifying agents (foreign and domestic) who inspect organic production and handling operations to certify that they meet USDA standards.

NOP creates organic standards by working with other stakeholders, including the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB-a citizen advisory group described below), companies in the organic industry, and the public.

This process can begin in a number of ways. Congressional legislation can prompt rule-making activity, as can someone's testimony to NOSB, NOSB action itself, lobbying the National Organic Program directly, or someone formally petitioning NOP regarding a proposed rule change.  From there, NOP has a choice of what to do--it can enter the rulemaking process by itself, or more likely, it can ask NOSB to put it on their work plan.  NOSB could then have one of its committees work on the issue, or assign a task force to work on it.

Once this work has been completed and public comment on it has been received, NOSB assembles a recommendation and submits it to NOP to begin the rulemaking process.  If the recommendation is complicated or especially controversial, NOP might start with an advance notice of proposed rulemaking; if not, NOP will craft a proposed rule.  NOP then takes public comment into account and publishes the final rule.  The new standard becomes effective either upon publication or upon a date mentioned in the publication.