After a government audit outlined serious gaps in California’s oversight
of organic
products, the state department in charge of the program plans to be
fully compliant with U.S. organic food rules by this fall.

Federal regulators, who gave the state until June 1 to address violations detailed in the audit, approved proposed corrective measures in May.

Enforcement of California’s organic standards “will be significantly enhanced” with the corrective measures in place, said Rick Jensen, chief of the inspection and compliance branch for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, on May 25. “It’s a welcomed improvement in uniformity and application of organic laws.”

Among the eight corrective measures approved by the USDA, California now requires producers, shippers and processors to register and pay fees before selling organic products in the state.

The USDA also gave the state the authority to conduct spot inspections of organic operations, according to a May 11 letter from Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, to A.G. Kawamura, California’s agriculture secretary.

Earlier this year, government auditors singled out California in a report detailing broader shortcomings in National Organic Program enforcement.

While California had been approved to regulate organic food, it “did not have the required compliance and enforcement procedures in place,” according to a report on the audit results released in March.

California is the top U.S. organic producer, with more than 2,000 certified operations that generate more than $1.8 billion in sales a year, according to the USDA.

But enforcement deficiencies “resulted in reduced assurance that the state’s certified organic operations and their products meet regulatory requirements,” according to the audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.

State regulators were “not equipped to properly enforce” National Organic Program requirements, auditors said.

The government’s organic regulatory capabilities have been the target of heightened criticism as demand for organically grown fruits, vegetables and other foods grew rapidly in recent years.

Some questioned whether products labeled organic actually met federal standards, which include requirements the foods be grown and handled without synthetic chemicals.

Auditors said the USDA failed to conduct spot testing of organically grown foods for pesticides or take action against companies that were improperly marketing products as certified organic. USDA officials said they planned to add organic program staff and make more unannounced inspections.

California organic growers such as Dick Peixoto, owner of Watsonville-based Lakeside Organic Gardens, acknowledged there have been credibility problems for the organic industry but said oversight has improved.

“Those doors are being closed” Peixoto said, referring to holes in organic oversight. “In the last year, our certifier has been watching a lot more closely. They’ve definitely tightened up on it.”

Larry Jacobs, president of Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo, a Pescadero, Calif.-based organic fruit and vegetable grower, said California’s recent steps are an “enormous positive” for the industry.

“Anything that strengthens implementation of the laws and makes it work better, with more transparency, is good for the industry and good for the public,” Jacobs said.

Jensen, of California’s agriculture department, said the state also developed a “quality systems manual” for the organic industry, detailing procedures for spot inspections and random samplings.

The formal regulations are expected to be filed with the state’s office of administrative law by the first week of June, followed by two public comment periods over the summer, Jensen said. Formal rule making is expected to be completed by the end of summer.

Ultimately, California will place additional requirements for organic businesses beyond what the national program does, Jensen said.

The overarching goal is “a very strong and very transparent organic enforcement” in the state, Jensen said. “The industry will gain confidence and the consumer will gain confidence as well.”