Tighten oversight of organic farmers, USDA warns California

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON — California must improve its oversight of the state's organic farmers or face Agriculture Department sanctions, federal investigators say.

In a new report, investigators recount both "significant improvements" and lingering shortcomings in how California and the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself monitor more than 2,000 certified organic farmers. In particular, investigators cite a longstanding lack of compliance and enforcement procedures designed to keep the fast-growing organic industry honest.

"As a result," the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General noted, "the California (state organic program) is not equipped to properly enforce the requirements of the (national organic program)."

Money and integrity are both at stake.

California's organic growers post sales of more than $1.8 billion a year. Nationwide, organic sales are increasing annually at a double-digit rate. With food labeled organic commanding premium prices, compliance and enforcement efforts are supposed to ensure standards are met.

Investigators, though, found the overseers who certify and monitor organic growers aren't always equipped to aggressively do their job.

One sham operator, for instance, was found to have been selling non-organic, pesticide-sprayed mint under an organic label for two years. Agriculture Department officials ignored it. In other cases, officials waited up to 32 months before disciplining fraudulent organic operators.

In its official response, the Agriculture Department agreed with the "valuable" criticisms made by investigators and indicated a pending budget increase will help speed reforms.

"We plan to make continuing improvements to ensure the integrity of organic agricultural products," stated Rayne Pegg, administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service.

The California organic agriculture office was closed Friday, in keeping with state budget restraints, and a spokesperson could not be reached to comment. Members of the California Organic Products Advisory Committee could not be reached Friday, either.

There are about 28,000 certified organic agriculture operations nationwide, which have received seals of approval from 98 certifying agents. The agents, though, acknowledge some ambiguity over what's required.

One poultry producer visited by investigators, for instance, provided only 300 square feet of outdoor space for 15,000 chickens. Two others had much larger pastures and far fewer birds. All three earned identical organic certification.

"(Agriculture Department) officials explained that the subject of outdoor access for livestock is a topic of discussion in the organic community and agreed that additional guidance would be beneficial," investigators stated.

The 1990 farm bill establishing the national organic program calls for periodic pesticide residue testing of organic products. None of the four certifying agents visited by investigators, however, conducted residue testing of the 5,000 organic operations they oversaw. The Bush administration's Agriculture Department never wrote the regulations needed to put the testing into effect.

"Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation's products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products," the investigators noted in their 49-page report.

In response, the Agriculture Department says organic certifying agents will begin periodic pesticide residue testing by September. The department may also be issuing new regulations governing pesticide testing.

Investigators noted in 2005 that the California program lacked some necessary elements, including procedures for handling complaints and resolving disputes. Visiting again in November 2009, investigators found the same procedures still missing.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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