USDA has tightened its oversight of organic farms in Eastern Europe after reports that the region was exporting improperly labeled grains.

“Domestic producers need to have a level playing field to be able to compete on,” said Greg Ibach, agriculture undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Ibach spoke at a July 17 hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research.

Reports in 2016 raised concerns about questionable labeling of organic grain exports from Turkey.

USDA’s National Organic Program investigated, finding falsified documents and products that were misrepresented as organic.

About 60% of the certified operations in the Black Sea region lost their organic certification — more than 180 operations.

In the course of its search, Ibach said, the agency reviewed all certified organic grain producers in three countries in the region and found a pattern of organic farms reporting yields far exceeding regional averages.

The agency also scrutinized hundreds of shipping records, audited and trained certifiers, and in some cases visited farms.

As a result of the enforcement, imports of Black Sea organic grain tumbled from half of all imports of the relevant commodities to just 21%, Ibach said.

The U.S. continues to intercept shipments that are inaccurately labeled as organic, including 350 boxes of bell peppers at the Port of Philadelphia in March.

But the next big goal is making sure that organic standards are being met by South America and other regions that are trying to replace the Black Sea imports, Ibach said.

He also argued that the hard line on organic imports should spur domestic production.

With robust demand for organic livestock feed, the number of U.S. farmers going organic, especially large Midwestern ones, is increasing, he said.

Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-N.Y., suggested USDA look at ways to make the three-year organic transition easier. During that period, farmers have to spend extra to follow organic practices but generally don’t get a premium for their products.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to make that transition,” Delgado said.

At the same time, USDA is trying to ensure that American organic farmers are on the up-and-up.

About 85% of organic complaints relate to U.S. businesses.

The agency busted a $140 million scheme to sell grain improperly marketed as organic.

USDA has also been conducting unannounced visits to certifiers and organic dairy farms to check compliance with pasture requirements.

“The U.S. has the high, gold standard for organic standards and we want to uphold that,” said Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program.

Phil Gruber is the news editor at Lancaster Farming. He can be reached at (717) 721-4427 or Follow him @PhilLancFarming on Twitter.