New Management at USDA Reforms, Strengthens National Organic Program
WASHINGTON, DC: After an extensive audit and investigation of alleged improprieties at the USDA's National Organic Program, the agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG) made public their formal report, dated March 9, substantiating the allegations of prominent organic industry watchdog groups -- that under the Bush administration, the USDA did an inadequate job of enforcing federal organic law.
Since 2002, when the USDA adopted the federal organic regulations, the agency has been plagued by underfunding and a number of scandals and complaints about its cozy relationship with agribusiness interests and lobbyists.
"We are satisfied with the thoroughness of the investigation conducted by the USDA's Inspector General," said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. "And, we are pleased and impressed by the earnest response of the current management at the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and its National Organic Program, in responding to the report's critical findings."
The audit of the National Organic Program found that improvements in the program had been made, but also identified 14 major concerns requiring better management controls and the need to strengthen enforcement as well as oversight of organic certification agents.
In a letter dated May 10, 2008, The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, had formally requested the USDA's Inspector General investigate questionable enforcement practices, and deficiencies, in the NOP's oversight of the organic industry. An investigative report last year by the Washington Post concerning mismanagement at the NOP, and public concerns expressed by Congress, made the release of the OIG audit highly anticipated.
Some of the most troubling findings of the new audit include not following through on enforcement after violations were confirmed by federal law enforcement investigators. When enforcement was pursued, the USDA sometimes delayed action for as long as 32 months. And the NOP could not document for OIG investigators the status of 19 complaints it had received, since 2004, that alleged illegal activity.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Will Fantle, The Cornucopia Institute's Research Director. "Spotty enforcement of organic rules, since 2002, has enabled a number of giant factory farms, engaged in suspect practices, to place ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage, particularly in organic dairy, beef and egg production."
The report pointed out that the State of California, which was given authority to oversee the USDA's organic standards in that state, was woefully inadequate in its oversight and enforcement capabilities. With growing organic imports, from countries like China, the audit also found that foreign certifiers were not properly supervised.
"Obviously, these are troubling findings. But we are satisfied that, finally, these deficiencies are being taken seriously by the political appointees at the USDA," added Fantle.
In a formal response to the OIG report, AMS administrator Rayne Pegg at the USDA stated that she "reviewed the report and agree[d] in principle with its findings and recommendations."
Although a long-time critic of the management at the USDA's National Organic Program, Cornucopia, an aggressive industry watchdog, affirmed its belief in the credibility of the current organic program and said it would continue to fight for "excellence" in public service at the federal agency.
"With mandatory annual inspections of farms and processors, and audits of transactional documents, consumers should feel comfortable with the credibility of the organic food they are purchasing," Kastel added. "The organic label is still the gold standard for families seeking the safest and most nutritious food. We need to work earnestly to make sure that it continues to deserve the trust of consumers."
Although not mentioned by name, the OIG audit identifies numerous actions and decisions by the former organic program manager (Dr. Barbara Robinson) for some of the most serious enforcement deficiencies in the agency.
After the Obama administration and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack took the reins at the USDA, one of their first actions was to appoint Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a former Tufts University professor who is widely respected in the organic community and is an expert in farming and food regulations, as the Deputy Secretary at the agency.
Last fall, Dr. Merrigan appointed Miles McEvoy to replace Robinson as the head of the organic program. McEvoy, with a distinguished 20-year career overseeing one of the largest state organic programs in the nation at the Washington Department of Agriculture, quickly announced "the age of enforcement" was at hand for the organic program.