USDA Inspector General Finds Poor Enforcement of Organic Laws

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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 a formal report substantiating the allegations of 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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,” said Will Fantle, The Cornucopia Institute’s Research Director.

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.”

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.”

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 Barbara Robinson as the head of the organic program. McEvoy quickly announced “the age of enforcement” was at hand for the organic program.

“I think the Obama/Vilsack administration is serious about cracking down on abuses by corporate agribusiness, and others attempting to exploit the organic label,” noted Kastel. “So far, the actions and words by the new managers at the organic program lead me to believe they are sincere in the statements they are making.”

The full report is available at:

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