U.S. organic food regulators have implemented 12 of 14 recommended improvements after auditors this year reported widespread, long-running lapses in oversight of standards, the head of the government’s organic program said.

The remaining two recommendations are expected to be complete by the end of the year, Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, said in an Oct. 15 interview at Natural Products Expo East convention in Boston. The convention included the Organic Trade Association’s All Things Organic conference.

McEvoy said he’s pleased with progress the program has made since March, when auditors released a report that urged the NOP to “improve program administration and strengthen their management controls to ensure more effective enforcement of program requirements.”

Among the changes, McEvoy said the NOP is strengthening pesticide residue testing and stepping up accreditation, compliance and penalization of violators. Regulators have issued eight civil penalties totaling $62,000 against violators so far this year, McEvoy said. By comparison, the NOP issued three penalties between 2002, when the organic program began, and 2009.

This year's violations included fraudulent use of conventional materials and ingredients in products represented as organic and knowingly labeling and selling uncertified agricultural products as organic, the USDA said. All parties involved agreed to settlements.

The overriding goal of the changes, McEvoy said, is “protecting organic integrity.”

According to the audit, many foreign inspectors responsible for certifying that fruits, vegetables and other foods meet U.S. organic standards went years without on-site reviews by the USDA. Auditors also found that USDA failed to conduct spot testing of organic foods for pesticides or take action against companies that were improperly marketing products as certified organic.

Among 14 recommendations, auditors said the USDA should implement written policies requiring foreign certifying agents have onsite reviews completed “within clearly defined timeframes” and revoke inspectors’ accreditations if the reviews aren’t completed in a timely fashion.

The audit underscored criticism that the U.S. organic program lacked credibility and raised questions over whether foods labeled organic actually met federal standards. The Obama administration has increased the organic program’s budget, and additional money and staff have “enabled significant strides in program improvement,” the USDA said in March.

Earlier this month, the USDA issued five draft guidance documents  clarifying NOP standards on chlorine and compost use, wild crop harvesting and other organic regulations. The USDA is accepting public comment on the guidance documents until Dec. 13. If finalized, the draft guidance will become part of an NOP handbook for accredited certifying agents and certified operations.

USDA administrator: Organic oversight improves after audit

Bruce Blythe

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program, says steps have been taken to improve oversite of organic standards. MceVoy spoke Oct. 14 at the All Things Organic conference in Boston.