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Inspector General again finds weaknesses in organic imports

Consumers buying pricey organic produce would likely be upset if they knew the imported fruits and vegetables they pay premium prices for are sometimes doused with chemicals when they reach the United States.

A new report by USDA’s Inspector General looks at the National Organic Program’s international “arrangements and agreements” and finds them badly in need of reform.

The IG makes a total of nine recommendations for change in four different areas. It starts by saying USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) needs to strengthen its controls over organic imports. The National Organic Program (NOP) is a unit of AMS.

The inspectors found the process for determining organic standards equivalency between USDA and foreign governments is “not fully transparent.” It says the NOP has documentation, but the lack of transparency could result in reduced U.S. consumer confidence.

It recommends the NOP document and disclose all imported standards and differences with USDA’s.

The IG also recommends AMS strengthen its controls over organic imports. It made the recommendation after finding U.S. ports of entry are not in the business of verifying NOP import documents.

“Agricultural products sold or labeled as organic must be produced only on certified farms and handled only through certified operations,” the IG report says, adding no system is in place to be sure that happens.

The NOP only began requiring import certificates in 2012.

The IG audit recommends AMS work with Customs and Border Protection to review organic import information at the border with an electronic message system between the two agencies. The AMS set July 2018 as the date for reaching an agreement and a plan to implement a verification system to prevent fraudulent import certificates.

In visits to seven U.S. ports of entry to see what was happening to imported organic products, the IG found produce shipments of all kinds are fumigated at the border to prevent pests from entering the country.

That practice, according to the IG, runs counter to the assurance U.S. consumers get from the NOP that “foreign agricultural products maintain their organic integrity from farm to table.”

Not every shipment of fruits and vegetables get a pesticide bath at the border. The IG said if no issues are detected, imported fruits and vegetables are released. If pests or disease are found in a shipment — organic or otherwise — it’s sent to quarantine. Those shipments often get pesticide showers before they are released.

The IG made other recommendations for improved systems between AMS and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Miles McEvoy is stepping down from the post of administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program at the end of this month. He served eight years as the top organic official in the country.

The NOP, a small sub-agency that’s grown rapidly in recent years, isn’t timely in conducting foreign audits. The IG said there is no set review schedule for countries with organic equivalency agreements or recognition arrangements.

The IG recommends that the National Organic Program come up with performance measures for timely audits. Further, it says a two-year schedule of country reviews should be adopted.

Ports of entry visited for the IG’s audit of the international organic program included: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas and Chicago.  The NOP has organic equivalency agreements with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea and Switzerland. It has recognition pacts with India, Israel and New Zealand.

Fieldwork for Inspector General’s audit occurred from March through April this year. The IG published the audit report on Sept. 13. The IG last reported on the weaknesses in the imported organic controls in 2015.

The new report comes as the NOP’s Miles McEvoy is stepping down at the end of this month after eight years as the program administrator.

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