Watchdog Group Formally Challenges Allegedly Illegal Agribusiness Appointments to USDA Organic Governing Board

Reader Contribution by Will Fantle
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The Cornucopia Institute has formally asked the USDA to review the appointment of an individual to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) who, the group contends, does not meet the legal qualifications for the position. The 15-member board of organic stakeholders was established by Congress to provide advice to the USDA on organic food and agriculture policy and determine what materials are allowed for use in organics.

Congress set aside four seats on the NOSB for farmers, explicitly defined in the enacting legislation as individuals “who own or operate an organic farming operation.” Cornucopia’s request for review to the USDA states that new NOSB member Ashley Swaffar, a full-time employee of an agribusiness involved in organic food production, neither owns nor operates an organic farm. The government and industry organic watchdog made this determination based on Swaffar’s application materials, submitted to the USDA and obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“We are extremely disappointed by the USDA’s record of illegally appointing unqualified individuals to various stakeholder positions on the NOSB that fail to match the definitions earmarked by Congress when they established this important panel,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director. “The USDA has been inappropriately stacking the board with agribusiness executives to amplify the voice of business interests at the expense of other constituencies in the organic sector,” Fantle added.

When Swaffar applied last year for a position on the NOSB, she was the Director of Special Projects at the Arkansas Egg Company, a vertically-integrated egg production company that contracts with farmers for its conventional and organic egg production in addition to owning their own facilities. Her application, providing a detailed account of her responsibilities, contains no indication that she “own[ed] or operate[d]” an organic farming operation.

On her NOSB application, Swaffar listed “financial planning, developing new products and customers, industry relations, growth planning, government relations and compliance” first on her list of responsibilities in this role.  “None of these duties are specific to the farming industry or directly relate to the production of food,” noted Fantle.  “This list could easily appear on the resume of an individual working in a finance or software industry.”

If the USDA truly valued the voices of organic farmers on the NOSB, and respected the legal mandate set forth by Congress, they could have selected one of the experienced, family-scale organic farmers who applied for the board vacancy. Cornucopia’s FOIA on the appointment process revealed a half dozen such applications.

“As an organic dairy farmer, I have a great sense of pride when working with my animals and their pastures,” said one of these applicants, Rebecca Goodman, from Wonewoc, Wisconsin. “When I sell meat and cheese at the farmers’ market I feel valued by my customers. There is no pride in being marginalized by the NOP and no value in being represented on the NOSB by a growing number of members who refer to organics as an ‘industry,’ as if we are producing widgets instead of food,” Goodman stated.

The USDA’s 2014 selection process was conducted in secrecy despite a request from Cornucopia to the USDA to publicly open the process and solicit input from the organic community.

The timetable on a decision by the USDA on the review of Ashley Swaffar’s qualifications for her five-year NOSB term is unknown. In the meantime, Cornucopia is investigating a lawsuit, challenging in federal court another allegedly illegal member of the NOSB whom Cornucopia similarly contends is inappropriately occupying one of the four farmer seats on the board.

When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, they specifically set aside only two seats for processors/handlers in order to mitigate the concerns of some organic community members that the integrity of the organic label could be undermined by corporate lobbyists and influence.

“If board members no longer represent the broad mix of organic stakeholders intended by Congress, the organic community’s perspective is warped and shortchanged,” said Helen Kees, a certified organic vegetable and beef producer, from Durand, Wisconsin, who acts as Cornucopia’s board president. “We know from our analysis of NOSB member voting records (available at Cornucopia) that there is a significant difference in voting patterns, with the faux farmers frequently siding with powerful corporate interests on controversial issues rather than standing tall for organic integrity,” Kees explained.


A list of current members of the NOSB can be found here. The 15-member board was created by Congress in 1990 as part of the Organic Foods Production Act. The NOSB was established to represent the diverse organic community, with seats on the board reserved for farmers, environmentalists, consumers and public interest representatives, organic handler/processors, a retailer, a scientist, and a representative of organic certifiers. Congress, in its wisdom, believed a diverse board would reduce the opportunity for domination by corporate and commercial interests.

The Cornucopia Institute supplemented their formal request for a review of Swaffar’s NOSB appointment with an extensive set of appendices that further buttress the issues raised in the review request.  The document can be viewed here.

Photo by Mark Kastel (caption: NOSB Members, Spring 2015)

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