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USDA’s Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule aims to eradicate fraud


The Department of Agriculture announced new guidelines for products labeled “organic,” a term that has become increasingly misused as shoppers have sought healthier, environmentally friendly foods.

The USDA has a strict definition of “certified organic,” so the label can only be used for products that meet certain standards for soil quality, animal husbandry practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. The updates issued by the agency on Thursday aim to close loopholes that allowed ingredients that do not meet the criteria to infiltrate the supply chain.

Tom Chapman, chief executive of the Organic Trade Association, said the updates represent “the single largest revision of the organic standards since they were published in 1990.” They should go a long way towards increasing trust in the “organic” label, Chapman said, noting that the move “raises the bar to prevent bad actors at any point in the supply chain.”

Millions of pounds of apparently fake “organic” grains convince the food industry that there may be a problem

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

Nevertheless, problems with organic fraud have persisted. This month, the Justice Department announced indictments against individuals alleged to have set up 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 department said.

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

USDA officials said they were guarding against organic food fraud. Congress decided they need help.

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

Government standards require that products bearing the organic label are 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 irradiation. It is a high standard that even many farms using more natural practices do not meet.

U.S. organic food sales have more than doubled in the past 10 years, jumping a record 12.4 percent in 2020 to $61.9 billion as consumers became more concerned about eating healthy, according to the Organic Trade Association. Experts predict that the category will continue to grow. Although some consumers view “organic” as a synonym for “healthy,” the science on whether organic foods are healthier is mixed, with many studies showing only a small increase in some nutrients.

The supply chain has long confused organic food producers, especially as the industry has grown and large producers source their ingredients from overseas, where it is more difficult to check whether they meet standards. American organic farmers complain that allowing companies to market these products as “organic” creates uneven competition and undermines trust in the brand.

Important updates to the rules include requiring certification of more of the businesses, such as brokers and traders, at critical links in organic supply chains. It also requires organic certificates for all organic imports and increases requirements for inspections and reporting of certified business.

“Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA Organic Seal is a key part of the USDA Food Systems Transformation initiative,” Jenny Lester Moffitt, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, said in a statement. She added that “this success is yet another demonstration that the USDA fully stands behind the organic label.”

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

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

“I’m quite concerned that everyone is going to declare victory and go home,” said Mark Kastel, founder of OrganicEye, an advocacy group.

Kastel said the agency was “dragging its feet” on organics, taking 12 years to come up with regulations after Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990. And he points to a long-standing debate about whether large dairies in the West sufficiently adhere to standards for how organically raised animals should be treated. These dairies now produce most of the milk labeled as organic.

Violations of the standards, which include giving cows time to graze outdoors, constitute “a betrayal of the values ‚Äč‚Äčthat justify consumers paying a premium price for organic dairy products,” Kastel said.

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

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