(Beyond Pesticides, December 12, 2014) Bursting at the seams, the $35 billion organic food industry has tripled in size over the past decade, severely outpacing the U.S. Department of Agricultureâs (USDA) ability to monitor the more than 25,000 farms and other organizations that sell organic crops and livestock. As a result, certifying agents, or USDA-accredited entities that inspect and certify organic farms and suppliers, have increasingly fallen out of compliance, according to a piece in the Wall Street Journal. Advocates point out that while improvements should be madeÂ in the organic certification system, there is no equivalent inspection system in chemical-intensive agriculture, where inspections are mostly complaint-driven, infrequent, and conducted in most states by state departments of agriculture, which typically promote pesticides and have suffered declines in resources and inspectors.
There are currently 81 accredited certifying agents, which include small nonprofit groups, state-run agencies, and large multinationals. However, according to an internal USDA report, of the 37 that had a complete review this year, 23 were cited for failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms in audits. These 23 firms did not manage to properly conduct onsite inspections or correctly review applications for organic certifications, among other things, the report added.
Consumers must rely on certifiers to uphold the integrity of the USDA organic label and to ensure that the food they buy is produced in accordance withÂ guidelines set forth by the federal government.
A separate Wall Street Journal investigation of USDA inspection records since 2005 found that 38 of the 81 certifying agents failed at least once to uphold basic USDA standards. In that time, 40% of the 81 certifiers have been flagged by USDA for conducting incomplete inspections; 16% of certifiers failed to cite organic farmsâ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential mixing of organic and non-organic products.
USDA responded to the Journalâs findings by saying that it requires certifiers to comply with numerous requirements, and the problems found by the Journal and the agencyâs internal report reflected âa very rigorous accreditation process that requires full compliance and correction of identified issues.â Certifiers that fall out of compliance get the opportunity to rectify the problem, but if the problem is not fixed, they are at risk of being removed from the certification program.
USDA added that its certifiers were in compliance with 97% of its regulations. According to a USDA spokesman, three agents have been removed from the certifying business by USDA out of the 100 that have been accredited to operate since the start of the program in 2002.
One instance, in 2010, found the California OrganicÂ Farmers Association’s (COFA) accreditation as an organic certifying agent revoked because it failed to comply with the national organic regulations. As a result, COFAÂ was no longer authorized by USDAâs National Organic ProgramÂ (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 NOPâs renewed commitment to organic integrity.
NOP accredited COFA as an organic certifying agent on April 29, 2002. Following COFAâs 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 noncompliance infractions. On July 31, 2008, the NOP proposed to revoke COFAâs accreditation for three years due to failure to comply with the NOP regulations or to proffer satisfactory corrective actions. COFA appealed the NOPâs 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 Administratorâs denial of COFAâs appeal and revoking COFAâs accreditation for 3 years.
COFAâs 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.
âWe use the full set of enforcement tools that we have available to us, while also working with the legal parameters of the administrative law system,â a USDA spokesman said. âAny issues of noncompliance, however minor, are corrected.â
Some critics disagree with this. âThe whole setup of the system needs to be revamped,â said Chenglin Liu, a professor of law at St. Maryâs University in San Antonio, who has studied the organic certification system and has raised concerns about the thoroughness of certifying agents and the lack of frequent checks by the USDA of these certifiers. âThat leaves a lot of room for mistakes.â
With more and more American eating organic it is important to take action to ensure aÂ strong organic program and increase public trust in the organic food label. VisitÂ Beyond PesticidesâÂ Save Our OrganicsÂ page for information on what you can do to secure an organic future. To learn more about the environmental and worker benefits of organic production, seeÂ Beyond PesticidesâÂ Eating with a Conscience.
Source: Wall Street Journal
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.