US organic food enforcement slammed

Posted by Josette Dunn on 22nd March 2010

The US government has criticised the body set up to oversee the marketing and labelling of organic food in the country for failing to enforce standards under the Bush administration.A report from the Office of Inspector General at the US Department of Agriculture found that officials at the National Organic Program needed to “improve their enforcement of … regulations” and their “resolution of complaints”.

The report claimed, for instance, that between 2006 and 2008, the NOP “did not respond in a timely or effective manner” to the investigation of five certified organic operations.

The investigation, carried out by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), required the NOP to enforce remedial action against the five operations.

However, the report claimed that the NOP “did not monitor” the operations to ensure their compliance.

“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 two years,” the report stated.

“In the other four cases, the enforcement actions took between seven 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 five years, continued to market its product as organic without AMS’ knowledge.”

The inspector-general also argued that the NOP needed to “address ongoing issues” with the local body overseeing California’s organic industry.

The NOP allowed California to develop a State Organic Program (SOP) as it wanted the state to continue to grow its organic sector, the report said.

However, as of last November, California’s programme did not meet national requirements, the report said.

“The NOP, created in October 2002, has the responsibility to assure consumers that organic products meet uniform standards and that they are appropriately labelled,” the report said.

“However, we believe that NOP officials need to further improve programme administration and strengthen their management controls to ensure more effective enforcement of programme requirements when serious violations, including operations that market product as organic while under suspension, are found.

“In addition, they need to strengthen their oversight of certifying agents and organic operations to ensure that organic products are consistently and uniformly meeting NOP standards.”

Organic advocates welcomed the inspector-general’s report. “”Obviously, these are troubling findings,” said Will Fantle, research director at organic watchdog The Cornucopia Institute. “But we are satisfied that, finally, these deficiencies are being taken seriously by the political appointees at the USDA.”

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