A recent report from the Office of the Inspector General criticized the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service for failing to fully address concerns about the National Organic Program, which is responsible for maintaining standards for organic food labeling in the US.
A follow-up to a 2005 report which uncovered a long list of concerns (pdf alert) from standards to enforcement finds that the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) had addressed 8 of the 10 recommendations (pdf) from 2005, but the two that remain are biggies:
1. Working with the National Organic Standards Board on issues, and;
2. Addressing complaints in a timely manner, enforcing them, and educating their certifying agents.
There's good news and bad news here. Let's take a look at the bad news first and the good news last. It's always nice to end on an high note, right?
The audit found that the NOP didn't take action against several food producers who were mislabeling products as organic, or that when they did take action, there was no follow-up enforcement. Here are the details from the report:
As a result, NOP never issued the recommended enforcement action against one of the five organic operations, one that improperly marketed nonorganic mint under USDA’s organic label for 2 years; in the other four cases, the enforcement actions took between 7 and 32 months to issue. During this time the operations continued to improperly market their products as certified organic. One of these four, even after signing a compliance agreement that it would not apply for and receive organic certification for a period of 5 years, continued to market its product as organic without AMS’ knowledge.
Yikes! The audit also found that NOP officials failed to address 46% of complaints about the program since 2004, taking an average of 3 years to resolve issues. It sounds like they totally dropped the ball here. Auditors brought this up in January 2009, and by June 13 of the 19 open complaints were resolved.
Due to budgetary constraints, the agency also was not regularly testing samples of organic food for substances that aren't allowed in certified organics.
The report also brings up issues with California's State Organic Program. States are allowed to regulate organics within their states, but they're supposed to adhere to USDA organic guidelines. Somehow, California got approval without having enforcement and compliance guidelines in place.
The OIG has made 14 recommendations to help the NOP be more consistent and better enforce organic standards.
Put down that conventional tomato - all is not lost! These findings are not great, but as Marion Nestle points out, many of these issues are holdovers from the previous administration. The USDA is working towards whipping the organic program back into shape.
A lot of the problems with enforcement and oversight were due to budgetary constraints, and they've asked for an additional $3.1 million for the NOP's 2011 budget to help fix these problems. They've expanded their 2010 budget, as well:
Since the Obama Administration came into office we have taken numerous steps to improve the integrity of the program. The NOP has streamlined internal programs and procedures; enhanced oversight and enforcement in the marketplace by increasing staff; and established a complaint database.
I'm interested to see how the NOP handles all of these recommendations, especially in how they address concerns about California's State Organic Program!
If you want to get heard, the Organic Consumers Association is making it easy to send a letter to the Obama administration letting them know that organic standards matter to you!