The National Organic Coalition recognizes the urgent need to modernize and strengthen USDA oversight of organic products to prevent fraud and make sure that everyone in the supply chain is playing by the same rules. Operations voluntarily choose to become certified as organic, but once they do, they agree to comply with strict standards.  In doing so, they rely on USDA to protect the integrity of the organic seal and to enforce those standards, which undergird their own investments in their farms and facilities. Without effective enforcement by USDA, consumer trust and organic farmer and handler investments are jeopardized.

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) has recently announced plans for rulemaking in 2019 to strengthen organic enforcement. Learn more here. NOP also provided an update and action plan in May of 2018 summarizing NOP’s next steps to strengthen enforcement.

Below, NOC has outlined our recommendations to strengthen organic integrity and enforcement of the organic standards for imports, dairy production, and poultry production.

Organic Import Enforcement:
Imported organic products are required to meet the same standards as domestically produced organic products.  In recent years, NOC has raised concerns that enforcement procedures, particularly those governing organic grain imports, have fallen short.  This has allowed a surge of soybean and corn imports fraudulently labeled as organic. A 2017 Washington Post investigation and a 2017 audit report from the USDA Office of Inspector General exposed many of the flaws in oversight and enforcement regarding organic imports. Congress should require USDA to institute heightened procedures to ensure that all organic imports are meeting USDA organic standards.  These procedures should include the following:

  • A requirement that all imported organic products carry an electronic import certificate, to help prevent fraudulent labeling of conventional product as organic;

  • A requirement for USDA to revise its regulations regarding handlers in the organic supply chain that are excluded from organic certification requirements. When certain “middleman” handlers and brokers are not certified as organic, it increases the chances that imported products labeled as organic will fall short of the label requirements.

  • Implementation of a policy that triggers an immediate USDA audit of any international organic certifier whose accreditation has been revoked by a nation with which the U.S. has an organic equivalency agreement;

  • Implementation of a policy that triggers an automatic investigation when there is an extreme surge in imports of an individual organic product category, such as seen recently with organic corn and soybean imports;

  • The Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), operated by USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service, should be updated to track imports of all organic products. Currently, the U.S. government only tracks the value and quantity of a limited number of organic imports product categories.

  • The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s automated import/export tracking system, the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), should be updated to build organic-specific fields and questions into the system. This would provide USDA and the organic sector with more standardized and detailed information about organic imports.

NOC strongly supports the House and Senate Farm Bill provisions to increase USDA authorities and resources to address organic import fraud.

Organic Dairy Enforcement:
NOC believes that the lack of consistent enforcement with regard to dairy pasture requirements as well as origin of livestock rules have contributed to the oversupply of organic milk in the market.  This has had a devastating effect on organic dairy prices to farmers, and left many organic farmers and those transitioning to organic with stranded investments because there are no buyers for their milk.

Enforcing Access to Pasture Requirement:
In 2010, USDA put into place an Access to Pasture rule to ensure that all certified organic dairy farmers were giving their animals meaningful access to pasture, and to give more specificity to the access to pasture requirement in OFPA.  Most dairy farmers were already meeting that standard, but a few very large dairy operations were using a loophole in the regulations to skirt those requirements.  NOC is concerned that in some cases, dairy enforcement is still falling short, and some large operations continue to deny their animals meaningful access to pasture.  NOC is urging USDA to take immediate action to bring bad actors in the dairy sector and their organic certifying agents into compliance.

Clarifying Origin of Livestock Rules:
Another enforcement issue that must be addressed relates the transition of dairy cows into organic. OFPA requires organic milk and dairy products labeled as organic to come from dairy cows continuously managed as organic from the last third of gestation. However, in recognition of the short supply of organic dairy breeder stock in 1990 when the law was passed, an allowance was included for a one-time conversion of conventional dairy cows to organic as long as they are managed organically.  Unfortunately, with two interpretations of this provision, it has turned into a loophole that has allowed some large dairy operations to circumvent the last third of gestation requirement all together, and to bring conventionally managed animals into their operations on a continuous basis.  USDA proposed an Origin of Livestock rule to clarify that section of the law and ensure consistent enforcement of the standards. USDA proposed an Origin of Livestock rule to clarify that section of the law and ensure consistent enforcement of the standards. NOC is very disappointed the USDA has no plans to finalize the rule and we urge the NOSB to reiterate the need to finalize this rule. 

Poultry Animal Welfare Standards:
Unequal enforcement of federal organic standards has long been a problem in the organic poultry and egg sector.  To address this problem, USDA published a long-overdue Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule (OLPP) in January of 2017 to require all organic poultry and egg operations to provide meaningful outdoor access for chickens.  Most certified operations already meet the standards laid out in the rule, which would have helped create more consistency in enforcement.  NOC has joined with the Center for Food Safety, a NOC member organization, in a lawsuit to challenge the withdrawal of the OLPP.