The Center for Food Safety, a Washington, D.C., and San Francisco-based nonprofit organization formed in 1997, alleges that USDA may be allowing "sham" certifiers to participate in the National Organic Program, citing the "unexpected increase" in the number of agents—from 49 to more than 120—since 2000. Although the final rule for organics was published in 2000, it was not fully implemented until October 2002.
"Certainly we don't want to just say new certifiers aren't necessarily good certifiers; if there just need to be more certifiers to deal with the volume of product that's great," said Joe Mendelson, legal director for CFS. "But given the numbers [of new certifiers] and USDA's unwillingness to give us the documents, we have our suspicions that USDA isn't doing its job and we want to take a look."
The claim, filed in U.S. District Court Aug. 9, enumerates CFS' attempts on at least eight occasions to obtain the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, with a waiver of fees associated with research and copying. The claim also outlines USDA's denial of the fee waiver or lack of response on each of those occasions.
"Our suspicions are that there are certifiers popping up just to certify a couple products, to standards that aren't as stringent as the program is written," Mendelson said. "Nobody besides the USDA really knows what the accreditation process really is," he added. "The decision on who is to certify organic produce needs to be in full view of the public; it cannot be influenced by large corporate interests."
In responding to CFS' request, USDA in August 2002 said it would waive the fee if CFS "narrowed its request to a more manageable size," according to the complaint. When CFS did so, the request was still denied. The most recent reason for denial was that the request would not "contribute to public understanding," the complaint said.
"We have bent over backwards with patience to narrow our requests to meet their concerns about the volume and scope" of the request, Mendelson said. Originally, USDA estimated the cost of meeting the request at around $100,000, according to Mendelson, who said that cost has now been scaled back to about $8,000. Even so, he said, "We're a nonprofit organization; $8,000 is a significant chunk out of our budget. We also think it's legally wrong and that it sets a precedent for all the other work we do. They're wrong by law and we're not gonna in any way concede."
USDA representatives were unavailable to comment before deadline.
Mendelson said CFS is "content to take the narrower request right now and take a sort of slice-of-life look, and we can go back if we want to ? go broader and request more documents." But by "using the fee waiver to delay and prevent giving us the documents," the USDA is attempting to cut the public out of debate. "This type of attitude ? sends a very poor message," he said. "This program should be a model for consistency of information to consumers. ? Unfortunately, I think this is one action where it's really going to hurt the organic label."