Improvements Coming to the Organic Food Industry

When I read that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was going to make tougher regulations to the organic food industry, my first thought was that more regulation and more paperwork would cause farmers to leave the organic farming industry due to new, additional costs and time associated with more regulations. But I was wrong. The organic industry has requested updates to the USDA organic regulations.

The Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rules will strengthen standards for the oversight of the production, certification, handling, sales, and marketing of organic products. Organic growers and other stakeholders have asked the National Organic Program (NOP) to create better oversight and enforcement of the rules associated with all phases of organic systems including imports, handlers, trade arrangements, inspection, and fraud prevention.

During a 60 day public comment period, more than 1,500 comments were heard from organic producers, handlers, certifying agents, trade associations, government associations, organic advocates, and scientific organizations. According to the USDA, a majority of the comments were in favor of the proposed amendments, and they agreed the SOE rules would improve oversight and enforcement of organic regulations.

Here’s the organic industry’s concern. When USDA organic regulations were written in 2002, the supply chains were small: farmer – wholesaler -retailer – consumer. Since then, demand for organic food has risen, with organic food sales increase of 12.8% higher in 2020 than in 2019, and accounted for 6% of all food sold in the United States. In 2021, organic food sales topped $63 billion with $1.4 billion (2 percent) growth over the year.

The organic industry is experiencing “growing pains”, and the number of businesses who sell, market, and handle organic products has dramatically increased. Supply chains have grown to be global, and that makes it difficult to know if a product or ingredient meets USDA Organic criteria. Challenges with supply chains include transparency, trustworthiness, and having uniform systems in place to verify that a product is organic. Sometimes products have been mishandled, including exposure to pesticides, co-mingling organic with non-organic, improper transportation, or incomplete paperwork to verify that organic practices were followed. Without better oversight, strengthening, enforcement and new laws to address this growing market, the organic industry fears the integrity and trust of the USDA Organic label will erode.

Food produced organically is traditionally sold at a higher price than conventionally produced food. As organic processes have gone from regional to global, the possibility of fraud has increased. Here are just a few examples where people have tried to sell and distribute conventionally grown crops labeled as organic to inflate their profit.

  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa sentenced four people to prison who engaged in a fraud ring to sell at least $142 million of non-organic grains grown in Missouri and Nebraska and labeled as organic over a seven year period of time.
  • An individual was sentenced to federal prison who sold $71 million in non-organic oilseeds and grains across several states over a six year period of time. – needs a correct source.
  • Although a farmer in Minnesota had organic certification, he sold $46 million worth of grains grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, then labeled the products as organic.
  • In 2017, three 46 million pound shipments of corn and soybeans labeled organic arrived in the United States from the Black Sea region. By the time it was discovered the shipments were not organic, 21 million pounds had already been distributed as livestock feed. – needs info for footnote.

Although these examples involved crops intended for use mainly in animal feed, the supply chain for fruits and vegetables has also grown. Almost a third of fresh vegetables and nearly half the fresh fruit sold in the US comes from other countries.

According to the USDA, the United States imports organic food from approximately 111 different countries. The U.S. imports organic food primarily from these top five countries:

  • Mexico – 38.6% with approximately 2,500 USDA certified organic agricultural operations that include avocados, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, mangos, bell peppers, bananas, and raspberries.
  • Canada -11.76% with 7,300 organic operations that include roasted coffee, blueberries, and soybeans.
  • Colombia – 6.11% – Organic coffee, cocoa, and sugar.
  • Peru – 5.2% – Organic bananas, blueberries, ginger, bananas, and mangos.
  • Guatemala – 4.5% – Mangos, coffee beans, lemons, bananas, macadamia nuts, and spices.

The organic industry welcomes the additional oversights and new laws to insure that everyone works on a level playing field, is compliant, and that USDA Organic regulations are safeguarded. Working with many countries, growers, logistics, and agencies, it is difficult, and sometimes has not been required, to verify that organic best practices are adhered to. Dozens of operations such as processors, packing or repackaging operations, companies that label products, transporters that deliver or handle organic products and ingredients do not currently require certification. This will change, and they will need National Organic Program (NOP) certification under the new rules. 

“The Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule is the biggest update to the organic regulations since the original Act in 1990”, according to USDA Under Secretary Jenny Lester Moffitt. She added the move will “reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production.” – needs a source.

The Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rules will do many things. It will reduce the number of uncertified entities in the organic supply chain. It will require National Organic Program (NOP) certificates for all organic imports entering the US. Record keeping and supply chain traceability will be strengthened. Increased authority will be given for more rigorous on-site inspections of certified operations. Training and qualification standards for organic inspectors will be more consistent. Certifications will become standardized and reporting of data will become more frequent for certified operations to prevent fraud. All of these improvements strengthen farmer and consumer trust in the organic label.

The new rules will close existing loopholes. Those affected by SOE will include certified agents, organic inspectors, certified organic operations, and businesses that import or trade organic products. 

Not all in the chain of distribution need to be included in the additional record keeping and screening. They include organic farms or businesses with less than $5,000 annually in organic sales, retail establishments that do not produce organically produced agriculture products, and operations that receive, sell, store, or prepare for shipment organic products received that are sealed in tamper-evident packaging, or in containers.

The new regulations will take effect March 2023 and must be fully implemented within a year. 

As you can see, a lot goes on behind the scenes of the USDA Organic label. While the amount of organic fraud is small (less than 2%), the new oversights create tools that will require companies to become compliant to the new standards. It creates improved transparency, traceability, and enforcement of the production, handling, and sale of organic products. Ultimately, it will protect organic farmers and reinforce consumer confidence. 

It is refreshing to discover that the organic industry recognized shortcomings and reached out to the USDA for assistance. Working together, regulations were tightened to preserve the integrity, reputation and trustworthiness of the USDA Organic label.

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