USDA seeks input on efforts to deter fraud in organic raw material supply

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/ Olivier Le Moal
© GettyImages/ Olivier Le Moal
The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) is counting on industry involvement as it looks to strengthen the regulations that govern enforcement in the US organic program.

The agency discussed the issue of organic feed and food ingredient adulteration in an online discussion on July 17.

The goal of that virtual meeting was to gain feedback from the organic industry on what should be included in a proposed rule designed to strengthen enforcement in the organic sector, said Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)

“We’re at the early stage of writing that strengthening organic enforcement proposed rule, and we have got feedback over the last several months that the community would like to be more involved, [contribute] earlier to the process of rulemaking,” ​she said. “Generally, a rule is written, it is posted and people can [give] public comment, but at that stage, we can’t really talk .. as much about the rule. So we are doing this virtual town hall near the beginning of the process so we can get [industry] feedback during the development stage.”

This proposed rule will allow the USDA to deter fraud in the organic market, enhance enforcement and establish a level playing field across all organic farms and businesses with respect to oversight and enforcement, said Matt Pavone, policy analyst in the standards division at the USDA.

Several organizations have been making noise about a lack of oversight in relation to adulteration in US organic feed and food imports.

A report​ released in June by US organic industry watchdog, the Cornucopia Institute, highlighted some of the challenges in relation to US organic feed raw material imports; the US Organic Trade Association (OTA) also launched a pilot program​ earlier this year to address fraud in the organic supply chain.

“More stringent enforcement is essential to ensure that commodities meet organic standards,”​ said Anne Ross, farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute in an earlier interview.

“A positive step would be a proposed rule with real teeth—a rule that enhances trade controls, deters fraudulent conduct, and imposes meaningful penalties,” ​she said when asked about Tuesday’s meeting. 

Input sought  

The NOP had questions for organic industry stakeholders about many aspects of certification and inspection, said Pavone.

He said some of the topics it put forward asking for industry comment included oversight actions like a minimum number os surprise inspections on organic certifiers per year, clarification of aspects of the appeals process, establishing criteria for countries or regions to start or end trade equivalence agreements and amendments to the list of imported organic products that need a NOP import certificate.

“There are many organic products which are imported without this certificate, specifically without trade partnerships, and this is a blind spot in the supply chain traceability that impairs the detection of fraud and risk-based oversight,”​ he said. “The proposed rule would require all organic products entering the US be accompanied with an import certificate – this makes the import requirement consistent for all imported organic products.”

Other areas that potentially will be revised during the rulemaking process cover the data that certifiers need to list in the USDA’s organic integrity database, ways to address noted inconsistencies in the certification of organic grower groups, establishing qualifications for organic inspectors, how satellite offices are accredited and requiring the use of federated certificates by all accreditation agencies, he said.

Federated certificates are generated from the USDA’s online, searchable, organic integrity database but some certifying agencies currently use their own software and forms.  

Additionally, the NOP is planning to end current exemptions offered to some handlers of organic grains and products, said Pavone. “The USDA organic regulations do not require certain handlers who handle unpackaged organic products to have organic certifications – they are excluded from certification, examples include brokers, importers, traders, storage facilities, distributors and wholesalers,”​ he added.

“These handlers take physical possession of or facilitate transactions of organic products, but they operate without National Organic Program oversight,” ​he said. “This gap in oversight prevents traceability throughout the organic supply chain and makes fraud harder to detect because we cannot see the transition of excluded handlers. We’re considering a requirement that all handlers must be certified except for food retail establishments, like restaurants and grocery stores and transporters.”

Timeline moving forward

Additional responses to the topics raised are still being collected, said Tucker. There also will be time for public comment after the proposed rule is published in the spring of 2019.

“When preparing a proposed rule, it is incumbent upon the agency to explain in detail the problem in hand, explain why regulation is needed to resolve the problem, identify what the regulation will do and describe the expected economic impact,”​ added Pavone.

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