HARRISBURG, Pa. — Foreign fakery and domestic inconsistencies on grazing are major priorities at the nation’s organic regulator, according to that agency’s second in command.
“It’s all about integrity,” said Jennifer Tucker, associate deputy administrator at the National Organic Program.
Tucker delivered the keynote address at the Growing Pennsylvania’s Organic Farms Conference on Tuesday at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel.
With just 36 employees, the organic program is responsible for ensuring that the $47 billion in organic food and feed are indeed organic, as defined by federal statute and regulations.
Only products certified under the agency’s guidelines may display the USDA Organic seal.
But because organic products generally command a price premium, some people see an incentive to cheat the system.
That’s what USDA and industry members started thinking last year after organic corn imports from Turkey were reported to exceed that country’s organic production.
The National Organic Program investigated, finding falsified documents and products that were misrepresented as organic.
Among the bad actors were people who used to work for organic certifiers but figured they could make more money through fraud.
“Some of these folks are incredibly sophisticated,” Tucker said.
In response, the organic program has punished some operations, required inspection and testing from high-risk countries, and focused audits in Eastern Europe.
The organic program doesn’t have the authority to police imports at the port of entry, so it is working to bring customs and USDA inspectors up to speed on organic products, Tucker said.
Meanwhile, the agency is implementing changes recommended in an inspector general’s report to improve its oversight of organic imports.
Some people would like the program to move faster against scofflaws, but it often takes time to build a case, especially with foreign vendors.
“We need that legally defensible evidence,” Tucker said,
Some countries are easier to work with than others, and information that is available in the United States might be hard to get elsewhere, she said.
Questions about organic integrity have surfaced at home too, especially about huge dairies.
Ten years ago, the National Organic Program found many inconsistencies in pasturing practices, and some high-profile enforcement cases exposed a need for more specific rules, Tucker said.
Those rules are now on the books, but some organic groups remain skeptical that large dairies really fit the definition of organic.
A Washington Post story in May, for example, raised concerns about a massive Colorado dairy’s commitment to organic grazing requirements.
Tucker declined to speak about any specific operation or certifier, but she said that farms of any size, not just small ones, can qualify as organic.
And farms don’t have to go above and beyond to maintain their certification either.
“From an administrative law judge’s perspective, somebody who is just barely compliant is compliant,” Tucker said.
The National Organic Program has noticed inconsistencies in how certifiers are interpreting some regulatory nuances, so the agency will address those during its annual training for certifiers in February, Tucker said.
Certifiers, though, are aware of the public scrutiny on large organic dairies and are careful when conducting the annual audits on these farms, she said.
The program does take action when products are misrepresented as organic.
Of the 400 complaints the agency fielded last year, most were about uncertified operations marketing their products as organic.
Often, the offenders do not realize “organic” is a regulated term, Tucker said.
The program also levied close to $200,000 in penalties, and suspended or booted 300 operations from the organic program.
The scope of organic farming is likely to remain contested.
After an intense public meeting, the organic program’s advisory board recently recommended excluding aeroponics, in which plants are grown with a trickle of nutrients to the roots.
The board didn’t recommend axing hydroponics and aquaponics, two other soil-free systems that some farmers and consumers believe shouldn’t qualify as organic production.
No-soil techniques have been allowed since the organic program’s inception.
The National Organic Program is now checking with certifiers to see how many aeroponic operations they have on their rolls.
“We suspect there are very few,” but it would be hard to nix farms that have already been growing as organic for years, Tucker said.