By Miles V. McEvoy, Deputy Administrator, National Organic Program
The National Organic Program (NOP), a regulatory program housed in the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees organic farmers and businesses to make sure that organic food is produced with organic methods. In April, AMS released data showing the organic industry is now made up of more than 21,000 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States and more than 31,000 in 100 countries around the world. In 2015, the sale of organic products from these certified operations exceeded $43 billion domestically. With rising consumer interest and the sale of organic products topping double-digit growth, farmers and consumers look to the USDA for assurance that products labeled with its organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards. We are honored to serve the organic community.
Our job is to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal and the organic standards. We protect that integrity through certifiers, states, foreign governments, and the vigilance of many of you –protecting farmers and businesses and ensuring consumers buying certified organic products get what they pay for. Consumer interest in organic products and their increased confidence in the organic industry provides opportunities for farmers to succeed in this growing market.
Having a thorough and complete organic control system is essential to maintain the health of the organic sector. The regulatory work of the NOP supports every farmer’s ability to prosper in the organic marketplace – ensuring a level playing field, fair competition, achievable standards – a reasonable, rational and practical certification process – so that everyone, if they comply with the requirements, can succeed in the organic marketplace.
As part of our oversight responsibilities, we develop and update standards for organically-produced agricultural products. We make sure USDA-accredited certifiers properly oversee organic operations, and we take appropriate action to enforce the organic standards, protecting the integrity of certified organic agricultural products, from farm to market.
There are currently about eighty USDA-accredited certifying agents authorized to certify operations to the organic standards. As part of our certifier oversight, we regularly conduct audits to verify their ability to certify farms and businesses. Last year, NOP conducted 34 certifier audits. In addition, we provide in-person certifier training on key topics that support their ability to serve the organic industry, including certification, enforcement, appeals, and mediation.
To ensure compliance, NOP investigates all complaints alleging violations of the organic regulations. Where violations have occurred, we work with certifiers and the operations they oversee to bring those operations into compliance and keep agricultural products that violate the USDA organic regulations out of commerce. Depending on the type and severity of a violation, NOP may take enforcement actions that include:
- issuing a notice of warning for minor violations that have been corrected;
- ordering an uncertified operation to cease and desist representing products as organic; or
- suspending or revoking an organization’s organic certification or accreditation.
NOP may also issue civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation for representing agricultural products as organic when they are not. When appropriate, we encourage and assist non-certified operations with becoming certified. In 2015, NOP levied over $1.8 million in fines for violations of the organic standards.
Establishing the Foundation
Developing clear standards is the first step in establishing consumer confidence, providing well-defined guidance for certifiers and certified operations, building an effective compliance program, and protecting the integrity of the USDA organic seal. These standards set the direction for organic farms and businesses. To ensure an open and objective process that hears all viewpoints and perspectives, the NOP encourages public input in this rulemaking process.
Through our work with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a federal advisory committee made up of dedicated public volunteers from across the organic community, the NOP actively engages interested community members in developing or revising organic standards. The NOSB meets twice per year, in a public forum, to discuss items on its work agenda, vote on proposals, hear public comments, and make recommendations to the Secretary of Agriculture; the NOP uses these recommendations as the basis for creating clear standards.
The recently published Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) proposed rule would strengthen standards for organic livestock and poultry production. It addresses a number of recommendations from the NOSB, audit recommendations from the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, and significant stakeholder input indicating strong support for additional rulemaking on this topic.
The proposed changes would:
- clarify how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and wellbeing throughout life, including transport and slaughter;
- specify which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production; and
- establish minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry.
By setting specific requirements for livestock and poultry production, transport, and slaughter practices, this proposed rule is consistent with NOP’s role of ensuring consumer confidence in the organic market.
The OLPP proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on April 19, 2016, is available to view online at www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic-livestock-and-poultry-practices, and is currently open for public comments. Anyone interested in submitting written comments can do so by visiting www.regulations.gov. Comments are due by June 13, 2016.
Later this year, NOP plans to implement several new rulemaking actions including proposed rules for certifying aquatic animals as organic, the production of organic pet food, and beekeeping. These proposed rules are intended to support NOP’s role by protecting certified farmers and businesses, providing a level playing field across small and large certified operations, and establishing standards that support organic market development, while also protecting consumers and the integrity of the USDA organic seal.
To learn more about the NOP, current and upcoming regulations governing organic certification, or the steps we take to protect organic integrity, visit www.ams.usda.gov/NOP.