Busted: Organic Food Certifiers Who Break the Rules

Published on March 09 2011 - 8:57 PM
Organic vs. Nonorganic Vegetables

The USDA is revoking the permits of two organic food inspection agencies. It's a step in the right direction.

On March 02, USDA announced that it was revoking its accreditation of two certifying agencies, Certified Organic, Inc. (COI) and Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency (GOCA). USDA says COI failed to:

• Communicate with hired inspectors about proper procedures or ensure they were adequately trained
• Adhere to internal procedures according to their operational manual
• Keep confidentiality agreements on file for all employees with knowledge about certification applicants or operations
• Indicate on certificates the effective dates for organic certification,
• Ensure adequate training for employees about the regulations
• Provide clients with cost estimates including inspection fees
• Clearly identify the company's responsibility to pay for any required pre- or postharvest testing
• Verify organic system plans against the actual practices of their certified operations

GOCA's problems had to do with "persistent noncompliance," including such things as "failure to require clients to use defined boundaries and border zones as required by the organic standards." This may all sound absurdly bureaucratic but it means the certifiers could be overlooking producers' violations of organic standards.

You can track down the records of such things on the USDA's website, and see the handful of other such enforcement actions at the National Organic Program's site.

I'd say this is progress. Organic producers are supposed to follow the rules of the National Organic Program, and to be inspected to make sure they do. If the inspectors aren't doing their job diligently, you won't be able to tell whether the organic foods you buy are worth the premium prices.

This is a key point of a recent FoodNavigator story on the market for organics. The U.S. industry is expected to go from $21.1 billion in 2010 to $36.8 billion in 2015. How come? Because of "the government's monetary and regulatory support and increasing acceptance of organic food in the country."

People will pay more for organics if they think the producer is credible. Organics are about credibility. That is why the USDA needs to fiercely enforce organic certification. Doing so protects the industry. The more of this sort of thing, the better.

This post also appears on foodpolitics.com

This article originally appeared on The Atlantic's Food Channel.

Marion Nestle is professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics.

Marion Nestle is professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics.