Groups Take Legal Action to Protect Integrity of Organic Standards

As the new federal organic standards take effect October 21, 2002, a number of environmental and public health groups concerned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) treatment of the organic standards have taken legal action to protect the integrity of the organics. The Center for Food Safety (CFS), Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, and Union of Concerned Scientists filed a formal legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The petition demands that the agency immediately establish a peer review panel to oversee the agency's accrediting of organic certifiers. The peer review panel is mandated by both a statute and regulation yet USDA has repeatedly refused to establish this crucial oversight body.

Appropriate certification of organic farms is the fundamental enforcement mechanism of organic standards. Fueling public concern over a reduction in the integrity of the new "organic" label is the appearance of numerous new, previously unknown certifying agents applying to USDA for accreditation. Since 2000, the number of organic certifying agents has jumped from 49 to 122. This unexpected increase in the number of accreditation applicants raises troubling questions about USDA's ability to properly assess the qualifications of the large volume of new certifiers seeking accreditation.

Equally disturbing is the agency's refusal to institute the legally mandated, public Peer Review Panel designed to evaluate the USDA's accreditation of organic certifiers. The Peer Review Panel called for in the Organic Food Production Act is the public enforcement mechanism designed to ensure USDA's accreditation procedures and decisions are appropriate and comport with the law. Absent this Peer Review Panel, consumer groups, many organic farmers and farmer-based certifying organizations fear that large agribusiness corporations will have an undue influence on who will be certifying organic producers and how that certification will be conducted.

CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell stated, "The agency's refusal to allow for independent oversight of its actions threatens the integrity of the "organic" label. The decision on who is to certify organic foods needs to be in full view of the public, where it cannot be influenced by corporate interests."

Farmer-based certifying entities are especially concerned that without adequate oversight of the USDA accreditation program they will be discriminated against by the agency during review and audit of their accreditation applications. Recent accounts of inconsistent clarifications from the National Organic Program (NOP) calls into question whether the NOP is equitably reviewing and scrutinizing all organic certifying agents' applications for accreditation.

In addition to the lack of oversight for the accreditation process, there is also increasing concern that the USDA is abusing its authority by creating loopholes in enforcement of the organic standards. One company has attempted to pressure the NOP into relaxing the 100 percent organic feed requirement for organic chicken production. Such exemptions would quickly erode consumer confidence in organic foods and erode the industry.

"The Center for Food Safety will be monitoring the USDA to ensure that the organic standards are upheld and that no exemptions are allowed," stated Rebecca Spector, campaign director for CFS. "The organic label must live up to the expectations of the millions of consumers that have come to expect quality and integrity from organic foods."

For a copy of the Final National Organic Program Rule visit the National Organic Program website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop or call (202) 512-1800 ask for Federal Register, Vol. 65, No. 246, December 21, 2000. For more information contact Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP.