Organic Broadcaster

NOP’s organic control system designed to protect organic integrity

By Miles McEvoy, NOP

The National Organic Program (NOP), part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), oversees a $43 billion U.S. industry made up of more than 31,000 certified organic operations located in 100 countries. As the regulatory program responsible for organic agriculture, the NOP’s primary role is protecting the integrity of the USDA organic seal and the organic standards. We protect that integrity through our work with certifiers, individual states, foreign governments, and the vigilance of many of you.

Protecting organic integrity starts with having a thorough and complete organic control system, which is essential to maintain the health of this growing industry. The NOP’s regulatory work ensures achievable standards, fair competition, and a reasonable, rational and practical certification process for all farmers and businesses. Our organic enforcement activities provide a level playing field. The NOP’s system of controls supports all farmers’ ability to succeed in the organic marketplace, if they comply with the requirements.

The organic industry is ripe with opportunity—job opportunity, economic opportunity for new and beginning farmers, premium price opportunity for smallholders in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and opportunity to protect biodiversity, improve soil and water quality, and to provide a path to a sustainable future. The industry is prosperous, and opportunity is not limited to U.S. domestic markets.

To ensure effective oversight and control for organic operations around the world, the NOP accredits and oversees a network of nearly 80 third-party certifiers who certify organic farms and businesses to the USDA organic standards. The NOP’s ongoing accreditation process ensures certifiers are inspecting and verifying organic claims. Certifiers ensure that certified operations comply with the organic regulations by evaluating applications for certification, conducting on-site inspections (both annual and unannounced), approving the use of the organic label, conducting feed, yield and sales audits, and conducting residue testing. When certified operations participate in international trade, certifiers verify organic imports comply with the USDA organic regulations as they enter the U.S. market. As part of their enforcement role, certifiers conduct investigations and oversee complaint management for their certified operations.

For both domestic and imported organic agricultural products, the NOP investigates and takes action on complaints alleging violation of the organic regulations—to either bring operations into compliance or keep products that violate the USDA organic regulations out of commerce. Initial enforcement actions could include orders to cease and desist representing products as organic; notices of warning for minor violations; and referrals of investigations to accredited certifying agents, other Federal agencies, State programs and international trading partners.

For more serious violations, the NOP may take further enforcement action that results in the suspension or revocation of organic certification or accreditation, as well as civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation for noncompliant sales of agricultural products. The NOP monitors organic certification activities around the world through assessments of international certifiers and foreign government organic programs.

The world’s organic market is valued at over $80 billion U.S. dollars. International organic trade is expanding to meet the demands of the organic market. The U.S. sources many organic products and ingredients from foreign countries as well as supplies organic products to many of our trading partners.

In order to support international trade of organic products and to ensure the integrity of those products, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, in partnership with the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Office of the United States Trade Representative, has established equivalency arrangements with Canada, the 28 countries within the European Union, Switzerland, Japan and Korea. These arrangements lessen the burden of inspection and certification while ensuring that organic standards are met. They simplify the process for all producers, including small farms, to participate in the global organic market.

Equivalency arrangements allow participating governments to focus resources on compliance with organic standards, rather than expending resources on verifying multiple requirements that meet the same objectives. Government and certifier resources can be used for market surveillance, investigations and enforcement—rather than duplicative and redundant processes that provide no added value.

Mexico is in the process of implementing its organic regulations, and AMS is exploring the possibility of establishing an organic equivalency arrangement with that country. SENASICA, Mexico’s competent authority, has accredited nine certifying agents and those certifiers have certified hundreds of organic operations in Mexico under the Mexican organic regulations. AMS has provided extensive technical assistance to SENASICA. We have conducted workshops in Mexico and SENASICA organic officials have observed NOP accreditation audits.

As part of talks to explore equivalency, AMS conducted a full assessment of the Mexican organic control system this past March. We found that SENASICA has fully implemented their regulations, and has a quality control system in place. The system includes thorough accreditation processes, and a comprehensive compliance and enforcement system that includes market surveillance and complaint investigation procedures. The two countries are also discussing the importance of organic import certificates to provide additional verification of certification, a possible element of a future potential equivalency agreement.

Import certificates provide additional verification to ensure the integrity of imported organic products. Import certificates are issued by accredited certifiers to verify that individual organic shipments meet the USDA organic regulations. NOP import certificates are currently required for all organic imports from Japan, Korea and 29 European countries. Canada and Mexico are planning to implement import certificate requirements under their organic programs later this year, and AMS is developing a proposed rule to require import certificates for all organic products entering the U.S. market.

Achievable standards, fair enforcement, organic equivalency, and import certificates—all are part of a larger, vital system—the organic control system—that make up the NOP’s efforts to protect organic integrity.

It is critical to the success of the organic sector that a robust, thorough, and effective organic control system is in place, with enforceable standards. It protects organic farmers and handlers and assures consumers that when they buy organic they are getting the organic products they are paying for.

Miles McEvoy is Deputy Administrator of the USDA National Organic Program.

From the September | October 2016 Issue

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