Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
Organic Advocates Take USDA to Court on Organic Certification
On October 16, 2002, one week before the new, and long awaited U.S. Organic Food Production Act was to go into effect, organic farmers and food safety organizations filed a legal petition to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish a peer review panel to oversee the accreditation of organic certifiers. Both the new law and USDA's own regulations require this peer review, but to date USDA has not moved to create the panel. The petition was filed by the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and joined by Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and Union of Concerned Scientists.
Appropriate certification of organic farms is a critical piece of enforcement for the new organic standards. Up until 2000, the number of certifying agencies in the U.S. remained between 40 and 50. However, since 2000, the number unexpectedly jumped to 122. The Center for Food Safety is pushing for the USDA to properly evaluate the qualifications of the large volume of new certifiers seeking accreditation. Without a Peer Review Panel, consumer groups, many organic farmers and farmer-based certifying organizations fear that large agribusiness corporations will have an undue influence on who will be certifying organic producers and how that certification will be conducted.
CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell stated, "The agency's refusal to allow for independent oversight of its actions threatens the integrity of the "organic" label. The decision on who is to certify organic foods needs to be in full view of the public, where it cannot be influenced by corporate interests."
Farmer-based certifying entities are especially concerned that without adequate oversight of the USDA accreditation program, they will be discriminated against by the agency during review and audit of their accreditation applications. The petition cites inconsistencies in clarifications from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) to different organic certifiers, calling into question the level of fairness and scrutiny of applications of accreditation.
In addition to the lack of oversight for the accreditation process, petitioners raised concern that the USDA is abusing its authority by creating loopholes in enforcement of the organic standards. One company has attempted to pressure the NOP into relaxing the 100% organic feed requirement for organic chicken production. Such exemptions would quickly erode consumer confidence in organic foods and erode the industry.
"Continued failure of USDA to implement citizens oversight or peer review of their organic accreditation program not only threatens organic integrity and consumer confidence, but also fails to meet already-established international norms," said Michael Sligh, director of sustainable agriculture for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), and founding chair of USDA National Organic Standards Board.
Sources: Center for Food Safety Files Legal Action, Press Release Oct. 16, 2002
Contact: Center for Food Safety, 660 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003; phone (800) 600-6664 or (202) 547-9359; email firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/.