The USDA’s organic label is likely the most trusted mark of its kind. The organic label has seen steady growth ever since 1990 when Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that this year began with 45,578 organic businesses globally, with 62 percent, or 28,454 of those establishments, in the United States. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) serves the organic market in the U.S., which has sales of $55.2 billion as of 2019.

USDA’s Organic Oversight and Enforcement update for 2021 is the source of those figures and much more.

The NOP has enjoyed increased staff and funding, employing 63 people, with more than half of its people assigned to either the Accreditation Division or the Compliance and Enforcement Division.

The annual report, which is published for only its fourth time, includes:

  • Domestic and Overseas Investigations and Compliance Actions.
  • Organic Trade Enforcement Interagency Coordination Report
  • Report on Enforcement Action Taken on Organic Imports.

Since its report in February 2020, more than 750 complaints and inquiries went to NOP. So called “educational information” resolved 40 percent of those inquires. The NOP investigated the remaining 60 percent.

Agreements for voluntary compliance settled most cases without a need to find a violation. Examples of voluntary compliance include instances where an uncertified farm or business gets certified, or a certified farm or business corrects a noncompliance issue. On occasion, an accredited company exists in the organic market.

A year ago, the NOP set up an online complaint portal and now receives about 75 percent of its complaints through that venue. In 2020, it collected 390 complaints, and 63 percent were for organic claims made by uncertified operations.

Complaints about prohibited practices, pesticides, labeling errors, and fraud made up the rest.

“When the NOP has the evidence to support enforcement actions, investigators use a variety of tools to levy civil penalties, establish settlement agreements, and in appropriate cases refer bad actors for criminal investigation,” says the annual report.

The California State Organic Program and the European Union’s legal structures are also relied upon to enforce worldwide organic standards.
During 2020, the NOP resolved 448 cases, with 47 percent settled through voluntary compliance,

Investigations found another 22 percent did not have organic violations.
The NOP took administrative actions against 14 percent. Ten percent are under investigation. Another 3 percent were in civil settlements or penalties, And 1 percent were in for criminal prosecution.

The NOP credits additional staff for its being able to “escalate a range of enforcement actions to resolve older complaints more quickly.” More use of civil penalties and subpoenas is being made possible by staff investigations supported by the evidence

Stepped-up enforcement is also credited for the loss of certification by 679 operations in 45 countries through suspension or revocation. By country, the top with operations suspended or revoked in 2020 were:

  • USA, 370
  • Mexico, 51
  • Tunisia, 51
  • Ecuador, 35
  • Chile, 27
  • China, 24
  • Turkey, 21
  • Peru, 20
  • Indonesia, 10

The NOP notes that domestic farms and businesses are not suspended or revoked at a higher rate than international operations; it’s just the United States has the most USDA certified organic operations with 62 percent of the world total.

Fertilizer tainted with prohibited pesticides, the sale of non-organic grain as organic, and an organic compliance probe involving livestock are among the NOP’s major investigations. For example, a South Dakota man charged in a grain fraud case involving $75 million is currently awaiting sentencing. Five men in Missouri are currently in prison for grain fraud and a sixth guilty plea is pending.

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