Organic programme allows mislabelled foods into US

Imported foods labelled as organic that may not meet US standards are slipping through customs into the country as mislabelled products, an audit has revealed.

Published by the US Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General, the report aimed to assess the department's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which has oversight of the National Organic Program (NOP) and is responsible for developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products, as well as international trade arrangements for the import of organic products into the US.

The audit, which involved reviewing documentation and visiting seven US ports, found that AMS was lacking in its control and oversight of imported products labelled as organic.

Specifically, there was no transparency over the process to determine whether imported organic-labelled goods were either equivalent or compliant with US organic standards, while a lack of documents detailing the agency's methods in resolving any compliance discrepancies meant organic labels could not be justified.

The report also found that AMS was "unable to provide reasonable assurance" that NOP-required documents were reviewed at US ports of entry to ensure imported agricultural products labelled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms and businesses. There were also no checks at ports that importers complied with US requirements, and there was no process to authenticate documents accompanying shipments.

"Although AMS does not have the regulatory authority to establish and implement controls at US ports of entry, AMS could have worked with other federal agencies to establish and implement controls for reviewing and verifying the authenticity of organic import certificates at US ports of entry to ensure imported agricultural products were produced and handled by certified operations," the report said.

Furthermore, the USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that AMS had not established and implemented controls at US ports to identify and track any organic-labelled products that had been fumigated with NOP-prohibited substances on entry to kill pests. Such organic products could no longer be sold or labelled as organic but AMS had no process to ensure this was the case.

"The lack of transparency could result in reduced US consumer confidence in the integrity of organic products imported into the US," the OIG said. "The lack of controls at US ports of entry increases the risk that non-organic products may be imported as organic into the United States and could create an unfair economic environment for US organic producers... Without controls in place at US ports of entry to verify the authenticity of organic import certificates, non-organic products may be imported as organic, if unscrupulous parties are willing to use fraudulent organic import certificates."

"As a result, US consumers of organic products have reduced assurance that foreign agricultural products maintain their organic integrity from farm to table," the report added.

Organic products, which tend to have a premium price tag, are growing in popularity in the US, with the sector booming to more than $40bn a year, according to the organic farming watchdog The Cornucopia Institute. However, as demand rises, foreign imports of organic-labelled products have also increased, as have people looking to cheat the system.

Earlier this year The Washington Post published an investigative report that highlighted weaknesses and detailed how easy it was for exporters to sell gross amounts of fraudulent commodities into the US markets, citing cases of "multibillion dollar metamorphosis" of fraudulently mislabelled soybean and grain imports.

The audit also follows calls of "gross incompetence" and "corruption" at the organic regulatory programme. In May, in a letter to the USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, The Cornucopia Institute called for action to "correct chronic failings" with enforcement and integrity issues at NOP. The Institute claimed organic farmers in the US were being left out of pocket by cheap imports fraudulently labelled as organic, while complaints to the NOP were being ignored.

Imported foods to be sold or labelled as organic in the US must be certified: by NOP-accredited certifying agents; under an equivalency arrangement that determines the foreign government's organic requirements meet or exceed US organic standards; or under a recognition agreement, in the case that foreign organic requirements do not meet US standards, which requires additional recognised and compliant certification.

The OIG audit listed 9 recommendations including more transparent procedures and partnerships with Customs and Border Protection Staff.

The full report can be found here

Related articles:

     Want our news sent directly to your inbox?

Yes please 2


Home  |  About us  |  Contact us  |  Advertise  |  Links  |  Partners  |  Privacy Policy  |   |  RSS feed   |  back to top