The recent government audit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program that exposed major oversight and enforcement problems appears to have had little effect on organic shippers or their customers.
Some organic shippers were not aware of the March 9 report by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, but those who were said they didn’t have special plans to address the report with their customers.
Among the findings:
* many foreign certifying agents went without on-site inspections by the NOP for as many as seven years;
* the NOP failed to conduct regular testing for pesticides; and
* California’s agriculture department was without support and compliance procedures for organic standards since 2004.
While the NOP is expected to double its staff and increase funding to address the problems, the question of whether consumers trust the USDA certified organic label remains.
“Organic labels have to have credibility to be effective,” said Karin Gardner, communications manager for grower-shipper The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia.
“If the government didn’t devote the necessary resources to (the NOP), I think that’s very sad,” said David Posner, president and chief executive officer for distributor Awe Sum Organics Inc., Capitola, Calif.
“I think that it’s good that the government finally woke up and realized that they need to do their job.”
Shippers said good organic growers can be counted on to follow standards. Even if the NOP was lax, organic grower groups, marketers and vendors do a lot to police themselves, said Greg Holzman, chief executive officer of shipper Pacific Organic Produce and juice company Purity.Organic, San Francisco.
“We rely on NOP, but we existed well before that,” Holzman said.
Holzman said he would like to see the NOP be able, when necessary, to respond more quickly and strongly to infractions.
“If you play by the rules, you want everybody to,” he said. “And I think that for the most part, people do.”
Simcha Weinstein, marketing director for distributor Albert’s Organics, Bridgeport, N.J., said many NOP problems appear to have resulted from inadequate funding, so if the $3.1 million proposed budget increase for fiscal 2011 is approved, he expects improvements.
Weinstein also said he is encouraged by the appointments of Kathleen Merrigan, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture, and Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the NOP, because both have previous experience with the industry.
Weinstein said in late April that Albert’s customers had not raised the issue. Because its customers buy from Albert’s, they place their trust in it. Albert’s prides itself on maintaining integrity and honesty in its interactions with customers, he said.
“Our buyers are not concerned at all,” said Ron Carkoski, president and chief executive officer of distributor Four Seasons Produce Inc., Ephrata, Pa.
“Our goal is to provide, to the letter of the law, organic and conventional fresh produce to our customers.”
Carkoski said Four Seasons takes seriously its responsibilities to follow regulations and it ensures that its growers do the same. If industry changes become necessary because of the audit, Four Seasons will adapt, he said.
Posner said he works closely with Awe Sum’s growers and is confident he knows exactly how they grow and pack their organic produce. He said his growers have high integrity, and said he thinks that the majority of organic growers in the world are trustworthy.
“In this day and age, it takes both integrity and enforcement to keep anything on track,” Posner said.
Grower Raymond Wong, president of Origin Organic Farms, Delta, British Columbia, whose produce is marketed by The Oppenheimer Group, said he develops and maintains consumer trust by continually educating customers about his practices. He wants consumers to learn to connect his brand, OriginO, with high-quality organic production.
The organic marketplace is no longer just local. It’s global, Wong said. Even Canada and the U.S. don’t have the exact same standards, he said.
In some countries, rules and regulations are less stringent, and Wong said he hopes regulations are strengthened for overseas organic trade.
“How do you control such a big place?” Wong asked. “I’d certainly like to see control regulations stepped up.”
Wong said he supports a change to unannounced inspections because, with advance notice of a regulatory visit, it’s easy for someone to cheat the system.
“True organic producers, you probably don’t need to check because they’re hardcore,” Wong said.
“But some are just in it for the money and they can easily cheat the system.”
Still, Wong said the USDA certified organic label is worthy of respect.
“People do recognize it as the organic standard of the world,” he said. “It is the most recognized label and it carries a certain level of assurance that still stands.”