As the popularity of organic produce blossomed in the 1990s, growers and distributors faced varying sets of standards to qualify as truly organic operations.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service implemented a National Organic Program in 2002 to provide uniform organic certification standards for farmers.

Since that time, growers and distributors must meet certification standards to use “organic” labeling. The requirements are often very involved, which can cause problems for regulatory compliance.

For example, V.H. Azhderian & Co., a Los Banos, Calif.-based company which grows organic melons, can use the organic label because it is certified by California Certified Organic Farmers.

“We’re required to give a detailed plan of what we’re growing, with mapped out growing practices, where we got seeds,” said Berj Moosekian, general manager of V.H. Azhderian.

“They also require us to prove that the ground is free from chemical fertilizers or pesticides, that no unallowable materials have been applied, and that organics equipment is kept separate from equipment used for conventionals — everything is documented in great detail and reviewed.”

CCOF is one of many boards which ensures farmers comply with federal standards, and its 2800 members make CCOF the largest certifying board under the U.S. national program.

The board oversees producers and distributors across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It requires regular compliance reviews, along with annual inspections to ensure members are meeting USDA standards and their own organics plan.

“We engage a lot with our membership, and work with them to hear their concerns about organic certification,” said Kelly Damewood, policy director of CCOF.

“We take steps for accessibility like having online databases, and having highly trained staff able to answer questions when they come up, so we can serve as a resource.”

The USDA then audits these certifiers to make sure they are applying the law properly.

“We see that not just the certification system is functioning properly, but also that they have an effective compliance and enforcement system in place,” said Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program.

When a certifier fails to meet compliance standards, the USDA can then punish those boards with civil, and sometimes even criminal, penalties.

McEvoy said most of the violations USDA finds are considered correctable — things like changing labels, or putting a different statement on the label.

The next level of infractions involve uncertified organizations making false claims of being certified organic.

“Then there’s out-and-out fraud — taking conventional product and selling it as organic,” McEvoy said.

“That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does we turn those cases over to the Department of Justice.”

 

NOP criticism

However, USDA audits are not always entirely thorough. According to a Wall Street Journal article published Dec. 9, an internal agriculture department report found that 23 of the 37 certifying agents under review this year were cited for failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms.

“There’s been a number of independent audits of the USDA that shows they’re not carrying out the audits as well as we’d like,” said Mark Kastel, co-director and senior foreign policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wis.

“If there’s any fraudulent activities that the USDA doesn’t catch, that’s a black eye for everyone, and it hurts the organic image in the eyes of consumers.”

Kastel said organics often cost more than conventional produce, but consumers are willing to pay the added expense because they assume that certain factors are built into the price.

“Consumers are buying more than that organic head of broccoli — they’re supporting the story behind it: a different kind of ethic, a more humane model,” he said.

“It’s important to uphold both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, so people think they’re getting what they invest in — some positive externalities that pay dividends to society. We have to be true to that story.”

 

Improvements

Nevertheless, others remain optimistic about USDA oversight. Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said she had strong confidence in the National Organic Program to oversee certification and enforcement.

“You don’t want an auditor finding nothing. That would indicate the auditor wasn’t being thorough, or the system wasn’t being pushed to improve itself,” she said.

“They’ve got new investigative tools out of the farm bill, so the program has never been stronger. Despite what you may see published, the program is the strongest it’s ever been.”

Going forward, USDA hopes to facilitate farming organics with understandable and reasonable requirements in order to meet continuing consumer demand.

“We’ve been working a lot with certifiers on the principle of sound and sensible certification. We have to ensure the integrity of the organic system, but doing it in a sensible manner,” McEvoy said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in organic agriculture, so we want to enable farmers across the country.”