US watchdog calls for overhaul of 'corrupt' organic regulator

The organic farming watchdog in the US has slammed the Department of Agriculture's regulatory programme for organic products, claiming "gross incompetence" and "corruption".

In a letter to the USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, The Cornucopia Institute said it felt "compelled to again bring to your attention the need to take action to correct chronic failings with enforcement and integrity issues at the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP)".

NOP overseas approximately 150 independent agencies worldwide that inspect organic facilities. It is also responsible for developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products and for granting the USDA Organic certification, as well as investigating complaints.

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.

It called for the replacement of the current management led by USDA deputy administrator Miles McEvoy, urging the agency to make a "clean break from the record of corruption during the Obama administration".

"Just this week you said of American farmers that if "they can grow it, we're here to sell it". That promise is fading in the organic sector for ethical organic farmers and we need your swift intervention," Will Fantle, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, said in the letter. "The organic sector has grown to more than $40bn/year. But increasingly, that market belongs to foreign imports and those willing to cheat or skirt federal regulations."

The letter to Perdue follows an investigative report by The Washington Post, which details how easy it has been for exporters to sell gross amounts of fraudulent commodities into the US markets.

The report cites that soybeans have entered the US with labels claiming they were organic when in fact they weren't. The fraudulent mislabelling, along with a fake USDA Organic designation, boosted the soybeans' value by approximately $4m, "creating a windfall for at least one company in the supply chain", the report says. The US-based broker told the newspaper it may have been provided with false certification documents.

The *Post *also found two other examples of "multibillion dollar metamorphosis" of grain imports, demonstrating "weaknesses in the way that the United States ensures that what is sold as 'USDA Organic' is really organic". The products all arrived via Turkey and were largely destined to become animal feed for organic animals.

According to the report, the USDA said it was investigating fraudulent organic grain shipments, adding that their system for guarding against food fraud is robust.

However, documentation tracing products back to source is not required for a USDA Organic certificate and no sanctions have been issued for the import of fraudulent grain, the Post notes.

It adds: "Regardless of where organics come from, critics say, the system suffers from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception rather than the rule."

The report continues: "These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported products, which often involve more middlemen, each of whom could profit by relabelling conventional goods as 'organic'. The temptation could be substantial, too: products with a 'USDA Organic' label routinely sell for twice the price of their conventional counterparts."

Earlier this month the Post also published an investigative report questioning the labelling of organic milk and claiming factory farms in the US were not living up to organic principles.

"This is the second organic major-league scandal uncovered this month by The Washington Post and it confirms a longstanding pattern of negligence and corruption documented by our researchers," said Cornucopia's Fantle in a statement.

The Institute said it had filed numerous complaints seeking to force the USDA to examine a wide range of alleged wrong doings but it said these were often dismissed or penalties were negotiated down.

"Clearly there is a hunger by many in America for food that is safer and more nutrient-dense. But consumers are being cheated and ethical farmers are being robbed of income while the USDA fails to vigorously defend, as charged by Congress, organic integrity," Fantle said.

The Cornucopia Institute has also requested that the Office of Inspector General investigate activities of the NOP, saying "it continues to appear that the NOP, under USDA direction, is a program violating the will of Congress and betraying stakeholders in the organic industry".

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