Organics audit faults USDA
Critics say Bush administration at fault for problems
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Organic groups say they're not surprised by a recent audit report that faults USDA for inadequate enforcement of organic food standards, but they lay the blame on the former administration.
Career civil servants within the USDA often tried to properly enforce organic rules but were overruled by Bush administration officials, said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry advocacy group.
"I don't think that's going to be repeated now," Kastel said.
Officials in the Obama administration have agreed to correct all the deficiencies outlined by auditors from USDA's Office of the Inspector General, according to an agency response to the report.
"They've made it very clear they would take this seriously," Kastel said. "We like what we hear."
Kastel's view was echoed by the Organic Consumers Association and the National Organic Coalition, which represents farmers, distributors, grocers and others.
"There are problems and they're getting fixed," said Liana Hoodes, executive director of NOC.
Auditors from the USDA's Office of the Inspector General noted several shortcomings in the agency's National Organic Program, which regulates compliance with organic food standards:
* Between January 2006 and June 2008, USDA investigators recommended that officials at NOP take enforcement action against five operations for improperly marketing crops as organic. No action was taken against one of the operations, and enforcement was "delayed for significant periods of time" for the rest of them, the audit said.
* One of the operations subjected to enforcement action continued to improperly market crops as organic, breaching its agreement with USDA. Officials at NOP were unaware of the violation because they had no monitoring procedures in place.
* Of the 41 complaints made against organic operations since 2004, 19 remained unresolved for an average of three years due to a lack of tracking and processing procedures.
* A state organic program in California was approved by NOP officials in 2004 even though it hadn't established required procedures for complaints, surveillance and enforcement.
* The NOP did not establish a panel to review the accreditation process for "certifying agents" -- organizations that verify practices and certify operations as organic -- contrary to its own regulations. Officials from NOP also did not make sure that certifying agencies had consistent standards for organic operations, such as a protocol to prevent organic and non-organic products from being intermingled.
* Five foreign certifying agents were accredited by NOP officials even though they were never subjected to an on-site review, and 24 more agents were not subjected to on-site review for more than two years after being accredited.
* Federal law requires organic certifying agents to test crops for residues of prohibited chemicals. However, NOP regulations did not include provisions for regular testing, largely due to the associated costs. Instead, the regulations state that agencies can require testing. "Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation's products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products," the audit said. The auditors recommended that USDA attorneys review whether the regulations comply with federal statute.
Honor Schauland, a spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association, said she's not worried the audit will tarnish the perception of organic products in the marketplace.
Officials at USDA have agreed to abide by the audit's recommendations, rather than deny the weaknesses exist, Schauland said.
"It's nice to see they're being transparent in that way," she said. "It's a lot worse for organics if there's this inspection problem and they're not willing to admit it."