Tests protect brand
Ronald Reagan famously said his policy on nuclear weapons treaties with the former Soviet Union was to trust, but verify, Moscow's claims.
That would seem to sum up a new policy for organic agriculture the U.S. Department of Agriculture will put into effect next year. Beginning Jan. 1, organizations that provide organic certification will be required to annually test 5 percent of their client operations -- farms, ranchers, dairies and processors -- to ensure they aren't using substances banned by the National Organic Program.
According to the USDA, this testing will "help certifying agents identify and take action against farms and businesses intentionally using prohibited substances or methods."
Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of individual producers and growing consumer interest in local food and agriculture, organic farming has grown into a $31 billion industry. According to the USDA, there are 17,281 certified organic farms and processing facilities in the U.S. In total, there are 28,386 USDA-certified operations in 133 countries.
Organic products -- both off the farm and from the processor -- command a higher price than conventionally grown foodstuffs. Those higher margins place added temptation on unscrupulous operators to take short cuts, producing "organic" products with cheaper, more productive and banned conventional techniques.
To date, the organic brand has been built on trust. Unless someone filed a complaint, producers who passed the extensive certification process were assumed to be following the rules at least until it was time to be recertified.
But that was before organics became a big business. A very big business. And if the rhetoric of the recent presidential campaign is to be believed, big business can't be trusted to look after the interests of the consumer. Enter the regulators.
Farmers found to have willfully violated prohibitions face suspension or revocation of their organic certification as well as civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.
The certifying agencies aren't happy that USDA places on them the cost of the testing -- reportedly as much as $500. While that cost can't be charged directly to the farms being tested, it will likely be passed along to all producers in the form of higher fees for certification. That could be a problem for small growers whose sales don't leave much once expenses are paid.
There is talk of establishing some type of checkoff for farmers and retailers that would fund the inspections.
While we're not fans of regulation for regulation's sake, this makes a lot of sense. Protecting the brand, and the profits it can generate, is important for every organic producer. The new rules seem reasonable. We have no doubt the industry will find some way to pay the costs.