Is that organic-labeled avocado you bought at the grocery store really organic? What about those “all natural, pesticide-free” heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market, or that organic-labled cheese from your CSA? If a product that was labeled organic wasn’t really organic, how would you know?
TAKE ACTION: Tell the USDA to raise the standards on organic labeling.
The USDA Organic certification program was established to ensure that products that are labeled organic meet certain federal guidelines for organically grown food. But apparently, some unscrupulous food producers have been slipping through cracks in the USDA regulatory system for years, unfairly competing with responsible organic farmers, and confusing consumers about which foods are truly organic.
In March 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an audit report strongly encouraging the National Organic Program, the federal regulatory body charged with overseeing the USDA’s organic certification system, to work harder to enforce the USDA’s organic labeling requirements.
The report noted that some farms and food producers have been flouting the USDA’s organic certification guidelines by falsely labeling produce that has not been certified by the USDA as certified organic. Other ostensibly organic farms have managed to violate USDA organic standards repeatedly without having their certifications revoked.
Though the National Organic Program can and does punish these violators with bad publicity, revoked licenses and fines, under new leadership and guidance from the Obama administration, the USDA wants government food inspectors to respond more swiftly and decisively to organic food fraud allegations.
The audit report focused particular attention on the state of California, which grows more organic produce than any other state in the U.S. The California Department of Food and Agriculture runs its own organic certification program, the California Organic Program, that has been granted the authority by the NOP to issue its own organic certifications based on USDA organic guidelines.
According to the USDA, the California Organic Program has not kept sufficent records of complaints filed against farmers and food producers for failing to meet organic standards. The COP has also failed to perform farm inspections in a timely fashion, and has failed to adequately test organic-labeled produce for pesticide residues as required by federal law.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture has recently responded to criticism by vowing to crack down on farmers and food producers who violate the terms of their organic certification agreements, deliberately mislabel non-organic food as certified organic, or use confusing label language to mislead consumers into purchasing non-organic foods at organic prices.
On June 25th, the CDFA proposed a new set of rules for the California Organic Program that should make it much harder for fraudulent farmers and food producers to escape detection, while protecting responsible organic farmers who pay for certification and practice proper organic agriculture from having to compete with less scrupulous food producers who break the rules.
Under the new regulations, the COP would be required to begin investigating complaints about organic fraud within seven days, and to report the results of that investigation within 60 days. The state of California would also, under the new guidelines, increase random inspections of farms that sell organic-labeled produce, and collect samples from organic food producers for analysis at its own labs.
On June 30th, 2010 the CDFA held a public meeting to discuss the issue of organic food fraud, and the agency plans to hold a public hearing to discuss the new regulations on August 10th.
The organic farmers’ trade association (and one of the country’s oldest and largest independent organic certification organizations), California Certified Organic Farmers, supports the new regulations. Executive director Peggy Miars recently said to the AP, “Only with reliable enforcement can we assure customers of the high integrity of the organic foods they buy and eat.”
Photo: Organic Mustard, copyright Jaelithe Judy. Used with permission.