All organizations take on a life cycle from birth, as they learn to toddle and then eventually they walk and ultimately run marathons. There is no other food organization under as much scrutiny and bound to such extreme transparency as the National Organic Program (NOP). Did you know that this program nestled inside the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is just fifteen years old? While organic farmers require tools and consumer groups demand strict purity, this organization must bridge the two needs and expectations with regulations and enforcement. What have they accomplished in their formative years, and more importantly in the last five years? When you look back, it is quite impressive.
At the helm of this 45 person program is Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy. Since he joined the department five years ago, the program has made enormous strides. One of his first initiatives was to initiate the “Age of Enforcement” which seeks to guarantee the integrity of the USDA organic seal. The temptation to label something organic without complying with the regulations can be very seductive; sometimes, it happens because people don’t understand that laws are in place governing the word. As a result, the NOP implemented a rigorous regime to assure that everyone is following the rules. They streamlined the complaint process, and they now respond quicker to complaints and perform prompt investigations and appeals. Civil penalties can be and are now levied if a producer or handler does willfully break the law. The NOP has sharpened the teeth in the watchdog process!
To add even more enforcement, the NOP implemented a periodic residue testing regime that includes testing for GMO contamination. Accredited certifiers now must test organic products to assure that there are no forbidden materials in the organic product.
They also perform regular audits of all the certifiers and the California state organic program. The NOP is holding the certifiers accountable to a consistent process of certification and enforcement.
In just a few short years, there have been four international equivalency arrangements with the European Union, Japan, Canada and most recently Korea. These equivalencies make it easier for organic producers to do business and sell into these foreign markets. U.S. producers no longer have to maintain multiple certifications for different countries. This has resulted in massive savings to small domestic farmers of over a half million dollars! Stay tuned because they are hard at work on future agreements with Switzerland and Mexico. They are ushering in one world of organics!
This may sound rudimentary but we now have a concise list of all certified organic operations on the NOP website. Five years ago there was no list to review and no way of knowing if an entity was no longer certified. They are hard at work on an Organic Integrity Database that will post more current information throughout the year on all certified operations and most important those whose certification has been revoked. Look for this database launch in September!
In my mind, one of the most important projects launched was the Sound and Sensible Initiative. Despite the successes and growth of our industry, the number of certified operations and the number of new operations has remained insufficient to meet the growing demand. Remember we are still only 1% of organic acreage in the U.S. The Sound and Sensible initiative alleviates burdensome paperwork, record keeping and extra costs associated with the certification process. This initiative strives to make it easier for new farmers to become and stay certified organic.
The National Organic Program (NOP) released their 2015-2018 Strategic Plans at the spring NOSB meeting. The plan sheds light on the NOP’s vision, mission and strategic goals, and summarizes their successes over the past five years. It highlights their priority projects for the coming years. They just released the origin of livestock proposed rule for comment and they plan to work on an animal welfare proposed rule as well as organic standards for aquaculture (fish), apiculture (honey), mushrooms and pet food. They will continue to make revisions to organic enforcement provisions to tighten certification requirements and better detect and eliminate fraud.
This little program inside the USDA performs a big job managing a burgeoning $40 billion industry growing at double digits. Not only are they reviewing traditional ways of producing food but considering new innovations in the way organic products are grown, manufactured and stored. The balance of purity and commercial availability are paramount as they continue to make strides in organic agriculture.
Look for great things to come in the future from the NOP. In the meantime sign up to be an Organic Insider and be one of the first to know what’s up at your organic program!