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Report: USDA lax on organic oversight, will improve enforcement

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been remiss in its enforcement of national organic regulations, according to an internal report made public on Friday by the agency's inspector general. Officials for the National Organic Program, which oversees U.S. organic production, have failed to come down on companies that falsely marketed their products as organic. As a result, the USDA will step up enforcement of the use of the USDA Organic label.

The report was conducted, in part, because of the rapid growth of the organic industry. Over the past decade, the organic industry grew 14 to 21 percent annually with recorded sales of $24.6 billion in 2008, according to the USDA.

"We are satisfied with the thoroughness of the investigation conducted by the USDA’s inspector general,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute based in Cornucopia, Wisc. in a release. “And we are pleased and impressed by the earnest response of the current management at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and its National Organic Program, in responding to the report’s critical findings.”

The USDA report indicated that between January 2006 and February 2008, NOP officials did not effectively respond to investigations of five certified organic operations. In one case, agents never took action against an operation that improperly marketed nonorganic mint under USDA’s organic label for two years. In other instances, enforcement actions took up to 32 months to issue. The audit did not name growers or processors making bogus organic claims.

Also, 19 of 41 program complaints against certifying agents and/or organic operations went unresolved for an average of three years, which wasn’t within a reasonable timeframe, according to the report.

Although organic regulations require that certifying agents conduct periodic pesticide-residue testing of organic products, the internal investigation found that none of the four certifying agents visited had performed these tests on the approximately 5,000 certified operations for which they were responsible. “There is no assurance that certifying agents performed regular periodic testing at any of the approximately 28,000 certified organic operations worldwide,” the report stated. “Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation’s products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products.”

The report issued 14 recommendations to NOP officials to improve program administration, including the creation of:

  • stronger enforcement procedures to determine what actions should be imposed on program violators, including civil penalties

  • timelines for resolutions

  • a tracking system for complaints from receipt through disposition

  • a plan for pesticide-residue testing

  • mechanisms for conducting annual evaluations of its accreditation process

  • stronger oversight of certifying agents and operations “to ensure that all onsite reviews of foreign certifying agents are performed”

Budget increases for the organic program will make stronger oversight more feasible. “To address the inadequate funding for oversight and enforcement, $3.1 million has been proposed in the NOP budget for 2011,” said USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Rayne Pegg.

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