USDA Rule to Strengthen Organic Enforcement Aims to Stamp Out Fraud

USDA Rule to Strengthen Organic Enforcement Aims to Stamp Out Fraud

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The Department of Agriculture announced new guidelines for products labeled “organic,” a term increasingly misused as shoppers seek healthier, more eco-friendly foods.

The USDA has a strict definition of “certified organic,” allowing the label to be used only on products that meet certain standards for soil quality, animal husbandry practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. The updates issued by the agency on Thursday aim to close loopholes that allowed ingredients that don’t meet the criteria to enter the supply chain.

Tom Chapman, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said the updates are “the largest single revision of organic standards since their publication in 1990”. You should go a long way toward boosting Trust in the “organic” label, Chapman said, noting that the move “raises the bar for preventing bad actors at every point in the supply chain.”

Millions of pounds of apparently counterfeit ‘organic’ cereal are convincing the food industry there could be a problem

Chapman’s business association, which represents nearly 10,000 growers in the United States, has been pushing for stricter guidelines for years, partly with motivation through a series of articles in the Washington Post in 2017, revealing that fraudulent “organic” foods were a widespread problem in the food industry.

However, problems with bio-scams persist. This month, the Justice Department announced indictments against individuals accused of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar program to export non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe to be sold as certified organic in the United States. They could charge 50 percent more for “organic” grains than for conventional ones, the ministry said.

And this week, two Minnesota farmers were charged in connection with an alleged plan to sell more than $46 million worth of chemically treated crops as organic between 2014 and 2021.

USDA officials said they would protect themselves from organic food scams. Congress decided they needed help.

“When violators cheat the system, it casts doubt on the integrity of the organic label and jeopardizes the future of the industry as a whole,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in a statement. “As a long-time organic farmer, I know how expensive and time-consuming it is to meet the standards required to earn a USDA-certified organic seal.”

Government standards require organic products to be manufactured without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage sludge or irradiation. This is a high bar that even many farms that adopt more natural practices fall short of.

Organic food sales in the United States have more than doubled over the past 10 years, rising a record 12.4 percent to $61.9 billion in 2020 as consumers choose more, according to the Organic Trade Association Concerned about eating healthy foods. Experts assume that the category will continue to grow. Although some consumers see “organic” as synonymous with “healthy,” the science on whether organic foods are healthier is mixed, with many studies showing only small increases in some nutrients.

The supply chain has long plagued organic food producers as the industry has grown and major manufacturers are sourcing their ingredients overseas, where it is more difficult to verify that they meet standards. Organic farmers in the US complain that allowing companies to market these products as “organic” creates an unlevel playing field and undermines trust in the label.

Key updates to the rules include certifying more entities, such as brokers and traders, at critical links in organic supply chains. It also requires organic certificates for all organic imports and increases inspection and reporting requirements from certified companies.

“Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA organic seal is an important part of the USDA initiative to transform food systems,” Jenny Lester Moffitt, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement. She added that “this achievement is further proof that the USDA is wholeheartedly behind the organic brand.”

The organic food industry is booming and that can be bad for consumers

Some food industry organizations say they are not yet sure how onerous the new rule will be for members. Others are already saying the new rule doesn’t go far enough to stamp out cheating.

“I’m pretty worried that everyone will announce the win and go home,” said Mark Kastel, founder of OrganicEye, an advocacy group.

Kastel said the agency was “lagging behind” on organic products, taking 12 years to come forward Regulations after Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. And he points to a long-simmering debate over whether large dairies in the West are sufficiently adhering to standards for the treatment of organic animals. These dairies now produce most of the milk labeled as organic.

Violations of the standards, which include giving the cows time to graze outdoors, are “a betrayal of values ‚Äč‚Äčthat justify consumers paying a higher price for organic dairy products,” said Kastel.

The new rules come into effect in March and affected companies have one year to comply with the changes.