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USDA Revokes Accreditation of Non-Compliant Organic Certifier

(Beyond Pesticides, September 21, 2010) Keeping its promise to maintain the integrity of the organic label made under the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that California Organic Farmers Association’s (COFA) accreditation as an organic certifying agent has been revoked because it failed to comply with the national organic regulations. As a result, COFA is no longer authorized by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) to certify organic crop, livestock, wild crop, and handling operations. Although the rigorous standards and certification procedures of the NOP are unparalleled in chemical-intensive agriculture, the program has been criticized for straying from its legal requirements during the Bush Administration. Organic advocates applaud NOP’s renewed commitment to organic integrity.

Under the Organic Foods Production Act, the federal organic law, organic products are required to originate from farms or processors certified by NOP-accredited certifying agents, which may be state-run or private. NOP relies on these agents to ensure that certified organic operations continue to comply with federal organic regulations. Organic operations must maintain an approved farm plan of how it will meet NOP regulations and undergo a successful inspection by the certifier to label its products organic. Certifying agents normally evaluate Organic System Plans, conduct inspections, and audit records to verify compliance with the national organic standards. Once accredited, they must renew their accreditation every five years.

NOP accredited COFA as an organic certifying agent on April 29, 2002. Following COFA’s submission of a 5-year renewal application in 2007, NOP conducted an audit of the facility and its records, which resulted in the finding of 12 noncompliant items. After COFA submitted corrective actions, NOP determined that COFA had not adequately corrected 10 of the noncompliances. On July 31, 2008, the NOP proposed to revoke COFA’s accreditation for three years due to failure to comply with the NOP regulations or to proffer satisfactory corrective actions. COFA appealed the NOP’s decision, which the Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator denied Oct. 8, 2009. Pursuant to federal regulations, COFA requested a formal administrative proceeding before an Administrative Law Judge. In August 2010, COFA withdrew its request for a hearing, thereby upholding the Administrator’s denial of COFA’s appeal and revoking COFA’s accreditation for 3 years.

Points of COFA’s noncompliance with the governing act and the national organic standards included review of a facility in which an employee held a partial interest, inadequate retention of records and procedures, and insufficient inspections of and communication with certified operations.

This is not the first time that NOP has challenged an organic certifying agent’s accreditation under the Obama Administration. In June 2010, NOP reached a settlement agreement with the organic certifying agent Organic Crop Improvement Agency (OCIA), ceasing its operations in China because of inadequate oversight. An August 2007 audit by NOP revealed that OCIA used inspectors on state-run farms who were employed by the Chinese government and therefore had a conflict of interest. In July 2008, NOP proposed revocation of OCIA’s accreditation in China, but OCIA appealed. The settlement agreement with OCIA, once a lead certifier of Chinese organic goods, prohibits it from operating in China for one year, at which point, it could re-apply.

During the Bush Administration, organic advocates criticized USDA’s implementation of the federal organic law. This led to two USDA Inspector General (IG) investigations. While most organic labeled produce and processed agricultural products on store shelves probably complied with federal law during this period, the IG found several serious problems with the implementation of the program between October 2003 and July 2009. Ms. Rayne Pegg, appointed Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Administrator by the Obama Administration in 2009, said USDA agrees in principle with the findings and recommendations of the audit. Citing recent budget increases, which nearly double the NOP staff size from 16 to 31, Ms. Pegg said, “NOP anticipates addressing all of the recommendations made by the Inspector General in FY 2010.” These include improvements to the process for certifying imported agricultural products.

For more information on the changes at the NOP following the IG audit, read the IG report, Oversight of the National Organic Program (01601-03-Hy) and Beyond Pesticides’ analysis. More information on the regulation of organic agriculture is available on Beyond Pesticides organic food program page.


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