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Audit of Organic ‘Certifying Agents’ Suggests Program May Need Overhaul

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this year reviewed almost half of the so-called “certifying agents” for its organic program and ended up citing 62 percent for failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on organic farms they audit, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The nation’s largest daily newspaper stated that the organic farming boom in the U.S. has outpaced the regulatory system. It means those “USDA Organic” labels and signs in the grocery store might not mean as much as they did when it was a smaller program, and that some organic consumers are probably not getting what they’ve paid for.

According to law professor Chenglin Liu at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, TX, the whole organic certification system “needs to be revamped.” His study of the system found checks of certifying agents are infrequent.

At the base of USDA’s system are 81 “certifying agents” that determine what’s organic under standards established by a national board. USDA reviewed 37 of those certifying agents this year and found 23 or 62 percent of those reviewed did not conduct offset inspections correctly, the newspaper reported.

USDA records show that 38 of the 81 certifying agents failed one or more times to uphold the national standards since 2005. Of those, 40 percent conducted incomplete inspections, 16 percent looked the other way when banned pesticides and antibiotics were being used, and 5 percent did not prevent co-mingling of organic and non-organic products.

Certifying agents include various types of organizations, nonprofits, state agencies, and even multinational companies. USDA’s reviews include a process for the organizations to correct their problems and continue in the program. All but three have apparently done that since the “USDA Organic” program began in 2002.

And 12 years into the program, USDA does not have a national database of organic farms in the program to keep track of potential infractions. Suspended organic farms can pay small fines and get reinstated.

Organic food sales are currently estimated at about $35 billion per year. The WSJ says consumers pay about double for what is supposed to be organic food sold under the “USDA Organic” labels and signs.

© Food Safety News
  • mem_somerville

    So, organic is sort of a crap shoot? I’m shocked.

    • Driving down the freeway at rush hour is a crap shoot mem. The organic industry is more like shooting fish in a barrel where the fish are trusting consumers.

    • Aidan Benelle

      As compared to (your) industry created “substantially equivalent” GMO crap shoot?

      This consumer will by organic any day over GM and that’s why there
      is an “organic farming boom” as reported by the Wall Street Journal

  • It’s actually far, far worse than this article makes out.

    Three-quarters of all USDA certified-organic food is imported from countries like China, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey and Brazil. And HALF of all USDA certified-organic food tests positive for prohibited pesticides.

    This is what happens when you set up a multibillion dollar industry without field testing.

    • lifeinorange

      “Correct & Exactly”. Everyone is jumping on the “Organic bandwagon” because it “looks good” and these products sell for more in most stores. It’s dressed up as “better for you”, and only suckers who don’t know and those who think that such stores such as “Wholefoods”, Nugget and Trader-Joes” (here in the Sacramento California region anyway) are the ultimate shopping experience make such purchases. Those in the know, know. These who think they know, don’t know. It’s just like the housing market bubble we just experienced as a nation. Laws are being “relaxed” currently “AGAIN” by house Republicans to make it easier for people to purchase homes at lower interest rates, etc….(WSJ: Issue 12/12/2014 Friday and CBS News Morning Financial Report). Here we go again. “Those people” never learn.

  • Nashville

    Can’t we just get along.. Here’s how I see it, keep it simple follow the regulations as a trusted inspector keep your job. Abuse and disregard you suffer penalties to include incarceration. Thier neglect endanger people’s lives we should not accept this type of disregard.