USDA’s Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule aims to stamp out fraud


The Department of Agriculture has announced new guidelines for products labeled “organic,” a term increasingly abused as shoppers look for healthier, environmentally friendly foods.

The USDA has a strict definition of “certified organic,” which allows the label to be used only for products that meet certain standards for soil quality, animal husbandry practices, pest and weed control, and additive use. The updates issued by the agency on Thursday aim to close loopholes that have allowed substandard ingredients to enter the supply chain.

Tom Chapman, chief executive of the Organic Trade Association, said the updates were “the biggest overhaul of organic standards since they were published in 1990”. They should go a long way to getting stronger confidence in the “organic” label, Chapman said, noting that the move “raises the bar to prevent bad actors at any point in the supply chain.”

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Chapman’s trade association, which represents nearly 10,000 growers in the United States, has pushed for stricter guidelines for years, motivated in part by by a series of stories in The Washington Post in 2017 revealing that fraudulent “organic” foods were a widespread problem in the food industry.

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However, problems with environmental fraud persist. This month, the Justice Department announced the indictments of individuals who allegedly masterminded a multimillion-dollar scheme to export non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe to be sold to the United States as certified organic. They were able to charge 50 percent more for “organic” grain than conventional, the ministry said.

And this week, two Minnesota farmers were indicted in connection with an alleged scheme to sell more than $46 million worth of chemically treated crops as organic between 2014 and 2021.

USDA officials said they are protecting themselves against organic food fraud. Congress decided they needed help.

“When violators cheat the system, it sows the seeds of doubt about the integrity of the eco-label and threatens the future of the industry as a whole,” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in a statement. “As a long-time organic farmer, I know how expensive and time-consuming it is to meet the required standards to get the USDA certified organic label.”

Government standards require that products labeled organic be produced without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage sludge or radiation. It is a high bar that many farms that use more natural practices do not meet.

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Organic food sales in the United States have more than doubled in the past 10 years, jumping a record 12.4 percent to $61.9 billion in 2020 as consumers become more interested in eating healthy foods, according to the Organic Trade Association. Experts predict that the category will continue to grow. Although some consumers think of “organic” as synonymous with “healthy,” the science on whether organic foods are healthier is mixed, with many studies showing only small increases in some nutrients.

The supply chain has long plagued organic food producers, especially as the industry has grown and large producers source ingredients overseas, where it’s harder to control whether they meet standards. America’s organic farmers complain that allowing companies to market these products as “organic” creates an uneven playing field and undermines trust in the label.

Key updates to the rules include requiring the certification of multiple businesses, such as brokers and traders, at critical links in green supply chains. It also requires organic certificates for all organic imports and increases inspection and reporting requirements certified operations.

“Protecting and growing the organic sector and USDA’s Trusted Organic Seal is a key part of USDA’s Food Systems Transformation initiative,” Jenny Lester Moffitt, assistant secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, said in a statement. She added that “this success is further proof that the USDA is fully behind the organic brand.

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The organic food industry is booming and that can be bad for consumers

Some food industry organizations say they are not yet sure how difficult the new rule will be for members. Others already say the new rule doesn’t go far enough to stamp out fraud.

“I’m quite concerned that everyone will declare victory and go home,” said Mark Kastel, founder of OrganicEye.

Kastel said the agency “drags its feet” on organics, taking 12 years to submit regulations after Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990. And it points to a long-running debate over whether large dairies in the West are sufficiently compliant with standards for how organic animals should be treated. These dairies now produce most of the milk labeled as organic.

Violating the standards, which include giving cows time to graze outside, is a “betrayal of the values ​​that entitle consumers to pay a premium price for organic dairy products,” Kastel said.

The new rules will come into force in March and affected companies will have one year to adapt to the changes.


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