Bipartisan legislation to get USDA moving on a backlog of industry recommended organic standards has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Continuous Improvement and Accountability in Organic Standards Act requires USDA to advance and implement recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board in a timely manner and to ensure the continuous improvement of organic standards.
In the past decade, the organic industry has advanced 20 consensus recommendations for improvements to the organic standards, yet USDA has not completed rulemaking on a single one, according to the Organic Trade Association.
The legislation requires USDA to issue an action plan with detailed timelines, prioritization and implementation plans for dealing with each recommendation. If USDA determines it isn’t practical to promulgate a final rule on any recommendation, it will be required to identify the specific restraints and submit them to the House Agriculture Committee.
The organic standards became effective in 2002.
"Since then we have not seen really any major updates, which is troubling," said Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.
The only rule USDA completed was the pasture rule for organic dairy animals in 2010, she said.
The association’s concern is that USDA has not moved forward with NOSB's recommendations, which have widespread support from stakeholders, she said.
"They've just been sitting in regulatory purgatory," she said.
The standards ensure consumer trust in the organic label and ensure continual improvement as the standards relate to the environment. Inconsistency in the standards leads to market failure, and the failure to advance the standards means missed opportunities, she said.
The federal regulatory process in general has not been working, it's long and arduous. But these organic recommendations have been sitting in the pipeline for over 10 years. USDA has either drafted a rule and never published it or has gone through the rulemaking process and never issued a final rule, she said.
For example, USDA is opening comment on the standard for transitioning dairy animals to organic for the third time in 18 years, she said.
"That's not an efficient way to do rulemaking. That's not an appropriate way to communicate with stakeholders," she said.
"There's frustration, and that's why Congress is stepping in," she said.
Congress is telling USDA it needs to move forward and the recommendations shouldn't be held up any longer.
Across the industry, everyone agrees the biggest challenge is having strong standards, she said.
“We have to get regulations in place,” she said.
That's the responsibility of USDA in consultation with NOSB, but USDA isn't moving the process forward.
"So we're just sort of stymied," she said.
The bill would also establish a new framework for advancing future organic standards, requiring USDA to issue a final rule implementing NOSB recommendations within two years. If the agency decides not to implement a recommendation, it must tell the public why and submit a report to Congress detailing the reasons.
The bill was introduced by Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.; Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.; and Ron Kind, D-Wis.