USDA’s Strengthening Organic Enforcement Rule aims to stamp out fraud

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The Department of Agriculture has announced new guidelines for products labeled “organic”, a term that has been increasingly misused as shoppers search for healthier and more environmentally friendly foods.

The USDA has a strict definition of “certified organic,” allowing the label to be used only for products that meet certain standards for soil quality, husbandry practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Updates released by the agency on Thursday aim to close loopholes that allow ingredients that don’t meet the criteria to seep into the supply chain.

Tom Chapman, chief executive of the Organic Trade Association, said the updates represent “the biggest overhaul of organic standards since they were published in 1990”. They should do a lot to stimulate confidence in the “organic” label, Chapman said, noting that the move “raises the bar to prevent bad actors at any point in the supply chain.”

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Chapman’s trade association, which represents nearly 10,000 growers in the United States, has been pushing for tougher guidelines for years, partly on the grounds by a series of articles in the Washington Post in 2017 revealing that fraudulent “organic” foods were a widespread problem in the food industry.

Still, problems with bio-fraud persisted. This month, the Department of Justice announced the indictment of individuals suspected of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar scheme to export non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe for sale in the states. United as a certified organic product. They were able to charge 50% more for “organic” grain than conventional grain, the department said.

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

USDA officials said they are protecting against organic food fraud. Congress decided they needed help.

“When violators cheat the system, it casts doubt on the integrity of the organic label and jeopardizes the future of the industry as a whole,” the rep said. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in a statement. “As a lifelong organic farmer, I know how expensive and time-consuming it is to meet the standards required to obtain a USDA-certified organic label.”

Government standards require that products bearing the organic label be produced without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sludge purification or irradiation. That’s a high bar that even many farms that use more natural practices fall short of.

U.S. organic food sales have more than doubled in the past 10 years, jumping a record 12.4% in 2020 to $61.9 billion as consumers grow more concerned to eat healthy foods, according to the Organic Trade Association. Experts predict that the category will continue to grow. Although some consumers consider “organic” to be synonymous with “healthy,” the science on whether organic foods are healthier is mixed, with many studies showing only small increases in certain nutrients.

The supply chain has long plagued organic food producers, especially as the industry has grown and large manufacturers source ingredients from overseas, where it is more difficult to verify s they meet the standards. American organic farmers complain that allowing companies to market these products as “organic” creates a level playing field and undermines trust in the label.

Key rule updates include requiring more businesses, such as brokers and traders, to be certified at critical links in organic supply chains. It also requires organic certificates for all organic imports and increases inspections and reporting requirements or certified operations.

“Protecting and growing the organic sector and the USDA Organic Trust Seal is a key part of USDA’s Food Systems Transformation Initiative,” said Jenny Lester Moffitt, Undersecretary for Marketing and Programs. regulation, in a press release. She added that “this success is another demonstration that the USDA fully supports the organic brand.”

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Some food industry organizations say they don’t yet know how onerous the new rule will be for members. Others are already saying the new rule doesn’t go far enough to stamp out fraud.

“I’m pretty worried that everyone is crying victory and going home,” said Mark Kastel, founder of advocacy group OrganicEye.

Kastel said the agency was “dragging its feet” on organics, taking 12 years to introduce after Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act in 1990. And it underscores a long-running debate over whether large-scale dairies in the West sufficiently meet standards for how animals are raised biologically must be treated. These dairies now produce the majority of milk labeled organic.

Violations of standards, including giving cows time to graze outside, are “a betrayal of values ​​that justifies consumers paying a high price for organic dairy products,” Kastel said.

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

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