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USDA Organic Program Says Oversight Improved under Obama Administration

(Beyond Pesticides, October 22, 2010) Miles McEvoy, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deputy administrator for the National Organic Program (NOP), said that USDA has implemented 12 of the 14 recommendations for improving organic oversight by the USDA Inspector General (IG), following an audit of the program’s management from October 2003 through July 2009. In an interview at last weekend’s Natural Products Expo East with the trade publication The Packer, Mr. McEvoy said he’s pleased with the NOP’s progress and expects the last two recommendations to be implemented by the end of the year.

The deputy administrator said the NOP has strengthened pesticide residue testing and stepped up accreditation, compliance and penalization of violators, and added that the overriding goal is protecting organic integrity.“We’re in the process of implementing a very comprehensive worldwide program to make sure that organic integrity is protected all the way from the farm to the marketplace,” Mr. McEvoy told The Packer. “There’s still a lot to do, but we’ve made a lot of progress and have done a lot the last year.”

While the NOP with rigorous standards and certification procedures unparalleled in chemical-intensive agriculture, it was criticized for straying from its legal requirements during the Bush Administration. Organic advocates criticized USDA’s implementation of the federal organic law during this period which led to two USDA IG investigations. In March 2010, the IG completed its second audit of the NOP and issued its report, Oversight of the National Organic Program (01601-03-Hy). The purpose of the audit was to determine whether products marketed as organic met the requirements of NOP. While most organic labeled produce and processed agricultural products on store shelves complied with federal law, the IG found several serious problems with the implementation of the program between October 2003 and July 2009. These issues range from organic inspectors without the proper procedures in place to comply with NOP regulations, to a complete lack of required residue testing and instances where USDA knew companies were selling conventional products as organic without timely action taken.

In total, the IG made seven findings and 14 recommendations to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). In its response to the IG, AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg, appointed 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.” In general, AMS took a tone of agreement and cooperation in its audit response, and the IG accepted all AMS management decisions.

The IG findings include: NOP Needs to Improve Its Enforcement of Organic Operations that Violate Regulations; Processing of Program Complaints Needed More Timely Action; NOP Did Not Properly Approve and Manage the California State Organic Program; AMS Needs to Determine Whether NOP Regulations Should Require Periodic Residue Testing; Evaluations of NOP’s Accreditation Process Were Not Performed Annually; AMS Needs to More Effectively Identify Inconsistent Operating Practices and Clarify Program Requirements; and, NOP Oversight of Foreign Certifying Agents Needs Significant Improvement.

Take Action: Get involved and make organic better!
While organic agriculture is far better than chemical-intensive conventional agriculture for people and the environment, there is always room for improvement. When there is a problem with the organic regulations, there is a process for the public to weigh in on what is allowable in organic production.

The USDA maintains a “National List” of the synthetic substances that may be used and the non-synthetic substances that may not be used in organic production and handling. The Organic Foods Production Act and NOP regulations authorize any person to petition to amend the National List. This authorization provides that any person may petition the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for the purpose of having a substance evaluated by the NOSB for recommendation to the Secretary for inclusion on or removal from the National List. You may review the substances currently on the National List. To begin the process of filing a petition, visit the National Organic Program’s “How to file a petition” webpage. For more information or for assistance in filing a petition, contact Beyond Pesticides, 202-543-5450 or [email protected].

For more information on the importance of eating organic food for you, workers and the environment, check out Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience food guide and organic food program page.


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