The National Organic Program at USDA has bolstered its control systems throughout the farm-to-market process to ensure continued consumer trust, according to the agency.
Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary for agricultural marketing and regulatory programs, was in Tucson last week at the National Organics Standards Board meeting to discuss how the agency is deepening its enforcement and oversight of the program.
In a telephone interview with Capital Press, Ibach said over the last few years, people in the organic industry have been raising concerns about the integrity of the organic shield and that the certifying process was being circumvented in some instances.
Looking into those concerns, USDA discovered some fraud involving imports and import certification.
“It made us aware there is work to be done,” he said.
The agency is working with both domestic and international certifiers directly to help them understand NOP expectations and procedures and make sure they are conducting uniform inspections — from area to area and small farms to large farms — with the appropriate scrutiny, he said.
It is also deepening its relationships with Customs and Border Protection and USDA’s Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service, which also has inspectors at U.S. borders, to tighten scrutiny of imports, he said.
That way, the agencies can “alert us when a shipment is coming in, and we can review documents and maybe increase scrutiny to address factors we’re working on,” he said.
The cooperation across agencies and with certifiers helps ensure an airtight verification process, he said.
Customs recently rejected three suspect shipments from Turkey, which included 39,000 metric tons of corn valued at $14.5 million and chickpeas, he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in Turkey’s (organic) exports over the last three years,” he said.
Rapid growth can trigger growing pains with documentation, compliance and an understanding of what’s expected in the organic program, he said.
It demands tighter inspections and increased vigilance, he said.
The agency has been working with certifiers in the Black Sea area and Eastern Europe, has increased inspections and has performed audits in the region, which appear to have discouraged some shipments not qualified for the U.S., he said.
As a result of increased vigilance, there has been a drop-off in the number of producers and certification programs in the region, he said.
USDA reported that trade data suggests organic corn imports from Turkey declined 35 percent and organic soybean import from Turkey declined 15 percent year over year in 2017.
There are some bad actors, including in the U.S., that the agency needs to identify and deal with, he said.
“But we’re mostly taking an educational process with certifiers and more unannounced inspections. We want to make sure we combine the educational piece with enforcement,” he said.