AGRICULTURE:

Organic enforcers let offenders slide -- audit

The National Organic Program's failure to promptly follow through on investigations has allowed some companies to continue falsely advertising products as organic for years and let one company off the hook entirely, according to an audit released yesterday by the inspector general of the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Between 2006 and 2008, it took National Organic Program officials an average of 15 months to act on the five enforcement recommendations that came from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. They never took action against one company accused of improperly selling mint using USDA's organic label, according to the audit, while another company kept marketing its products as organic after signing an agreement saying that it would stop.

The office needs to "further improve program administration and strengthen their management controls to ensure more effective enforcement of program requirements when serious violations, including operations that market product as organic while under suspension, are found," auditors concluded.

The report expressed concerns that at a time of double-digit growth in the market for organic products, failure to police the use of the label could shake consumer confidence in the certification. Steve Etka, legislative director of the National Organic Coalition, described the audit as "encouraging," saying it would strengthen the organic label's use as "a mechanism to keep everyone honest."

"In the past ... there wasn't a lot of assurance that there would be the will within the administration to fix these problems," Etka said. "Now that's completely reversed and there's a very strong dedication to this program within USDA. We see many signs that the program is already well on its way to fixing these problems."

Created in 2002 to oversee USDA's newly created organic emblem, the office has been one of President Obama's priorities within USDA.

Obama appointed one of the organic emblem's early advocates, Kathleen Merrigan, as the department's deputy secretary. She pushed for the audit, which was made known last summer and started last fall (Greenwire, Aug. 10, 2009).

The administration included in its proposed 2011 budget a $3.1 million increase in funding for the organic program, which would bring the office's total budget to $10.1 million. The office intends to nearly double its staff from 16 to 31 employees by the end of 2010, it said in a response to the audit.

Auditors also found a lack of standard enforcement practices, according to the report. When they monitored four officials responsible for certifying organic foods, none of the four tested products for residues -- such as pesticides -- that might disqualify them from an organic certification.

"There is no assurance that certifying agents performed regular periodic testing at any of the approximately 28,000 certified organic operations worldwide," the audit says. "Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation's products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products."

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the organic program, concurred with the inspector general's recommendations, saying "significant increases in resources at our disposal" would allow the office to refine its enforcement procedures.

Efforts to crack down on false advertising have already begun, AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg said in a statement yesterday.

"Since the Obama administration came into office, we have taken numerous steps to improve the integrity of the program," Pegg said. "The integrity of the organic label depends largely upon effective enforcement and oversight of the many accredited certifying agents responsible for reviewing organic operations."

The office announced last week it had secured the conviction of a Texas businessman for falsely advertising his pinto beans, garbanzo beans, milo and soybeans as organic. Basilio Coronado, a partner at Brownfield, Texas-based Sel-Cor Bean and Pea Inc., was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $524,000 in restitution.

Click here to read the audit report.

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