(Washington D.C) - USDA wants to close the window of opportunity for fraud in the sale of produce not organic as advertised.
According to USDA, the potential for fraud in the organic produce market has grown since demand for fruits and vegetables sold at higher "organic" prices has exploded. In the U.S. alone, total sales of organic agricultural products grew from $3.4 billion in 1997 to $55.1 billion in 2019, USDA said. As a result, the supply chain now includes handlers not covered by existing labeling restrictions, according to USDA.
“The absence of direct enforcement authority over some entities in the organic supply chain, in combination with price premiums for organic products, presents the opportunity and incentive for organic fraud,” USDA said.
According to USDA, fraud has been discovered by the National Organic Program and other stakeholders in the industry. Under the USDA proposal, amendments to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 include more oversight and enforcement over the production, handling and sale of organic agricultural products.
Specific proposals include reducing the amount of importers, brokers, traders and other uncertified entities in the supply chain operating without USDA oversight and requiring more NOP Import Certificates or equivalent data for all organic products entering the U.S.
Among the other proposed measures are closing loopholes on labeling requirements for nonretail containers used in shipping and storage to reduce mishandling and improve traceability.
There would also be a minimum number of unannounced inspections of certified operations and supply chain audits completed during on-site inspections.
Other proposed steps include establishing specific qualification and training requirements for certified personnel and easier to understand regulations on imports and tightened rules governing enforcement for violators from other countries.
The National Farmers Union, which has expressed concern about the authenticity of organic food labeling, is among the stronger supporters of the proposed action.
NFU president Rob Larew said many family farmers turning to organic produce to bolster profits because of low commodity prices are being undercut by lower priced fruits and vegetables falsely advertised as organic.
“Inaccurate organic labeling misleads and cheats consumers, harms the reputation of the label and cuts into the profits of farmers who play by the rules. We owe it to both food producers and purchasers to enforce organic standards without exception,” Larew said.
According to USDA, the skyrocketing growth in sales has made it easier for fraudulent handlers of organic produce to enter the supply chain.
Organic products once marketed locally and regionally for the most part tended to be short and transparent.
The supply chain is more complex and difficult to trace now since higher demand has brought more producers, handlers, suppliers, importers, brokers, distributors and others into the industry, USDA said.
According to the Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the NOP under USDA, an update of the regulations to fill in gaps caused by sharp growth in the industry is long overdue.
“A lack of clear and specific standards in portions of the regulations has sometimes led to different interpretations of the regulations, inconsistent practices and unequal enforcement across the industry. This can lead to mishandling of organic product, loss of organic integrity and fraud. The provisions of this proposed rule are designed to address these risks,” AMS said.
If approved, the changes would be the first significant revisions to the regulations governing the certification of organic produce since they were originally adopted in 2000, USDA said.