Organic grower-shippers and industry officials challenge claims made in a Wall Street Journal report on organic food certifiers that finds problems with the certification of organic crops and livestock.
The report, published in the paper’s Dec. 9 edition, cites a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program study which found that 23 of 37 certifying agents that had a complete review in 2014 failed to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms in their audits, and that 19 agents received noncompliance citations for accreditation.
The newspaper also conducted its own investigation of USDA inspection records since 2005 and found that 38 of 81 certifiers failed at least once to uphold USDA standards.
The Journal investigation also found that, since 2005, 40% of the 81 organic certifiers monitored by the government were found to have conducted incomplete inspections; 16% failed to cite organic farms’ potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics; and 5% failed to prevent potential commingling of organic and nonorganic products.
The Journal report could give consumers a false impression, said Samantha Cabaluna, vice president of marketing and communications for San Juan Batista, Calif.-based organic produce grower-shipper Earthbound Farm.
What the paper refers to as “violations,” Cabaluna said, include minor administrative violations, such as correcting the wording on certificates from “organic food producer” to “organic crop producer.”
“This type of administrative violation does not call into question the integrity of the products that the certifier has reviewed or the certifier’s competency,” she said. “When significant issues are noted, NOP has robust adverse action procedures to suspend or revoke the certifier’s ability to certify products to organic standards.”
Consumers should continue to have confidence in the integrity of the USDA Organic seal, Cabaluna said.
“The U.S.-certified organic system is governed by the strictest government standards of any in the agricultural sector. This comprehensive network of federal requirements and regulations applies to organic production from the farm gate to the dinner plate.”
Cabaluna also cited a recent USDA review which showed that organic certifiers are in compliance with 95% of the department’s accreditation criteria.
Greater funding for NOP in the 2014 farm bill will help the organic industry tighten enforcement, said Ricardo Crisantes, general manager of Nogales, Ariz.-based organic grower-shipper Wholesum Family Farms
“With these new resources, NOP will be able to better regulate an industry that has been growing in the double digits.”
In response to the Wall Street Journal story, the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association issued a fact sheet that also highlights how tightly the organic industry is regulated and the Journal’s lumping of minor violations with more serious ones.
The association also emphasizes the successes of a peer review system used to improve organic certification.
“The most recent peer review identified 14 opportunities for improvement, upon which the NOP has already begun taking action,” according to the association.
In addition, the farm bill strengthened NOP enforcement standards significantly, according to the fact sheet.
“NOP has increased oversight and enforcement authority of organic standards, and has used its power to subpoena records and levy civil penalties for fraudulent activity. In the past four years, NOP has levied more than half a million dollars in civil penalties for fraudulent activity.”
USDA public affairs specialist Sam Jones-Ellard said NOP is committed to the integrity of the organic label, and to ensuring that certified organic products meet consumer expectations.
“Enforcement efforts are a critical part of the NOP’s mission, and investigating violations of the organic standards alleged by complaints is an integral component of the NOP’s work.”