Protecting organic integrity through enforcement

Miles Mcevoy Special Contributor
Now Media Group

The mission of the National Organic Program (NOP) is to protect the integrity of the USDA organic seal.

Consumers look for and trust the organic seal because they know that USDA stands behind the standards that it represents. In addition to setting robust, meaningful standards that organic businesses are required to follow, the NOP also defends the organic seal by taking appropriate enforcement actions if there are violations of the USDA organic standards.

The NOP — part of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service — reviews all complaints alleging violations of the USDA organic regulations and takes enforcement actions, as needed, to bring businesses into compliance.

Anyone can file a complaint by following the process at How to File a Complaint about Violations of the Organic Standards. In addition to investigating alleged violations by uncertified operations, the NOP works with certifiers and international organic trade partners to investigate alleged violations by certified operations.

Once the NOP confirms a violation of the organic regulations, we can take a number of steps.

For example, the NOP can issue cease-and-desist letters to companies and farms that are misrepresenting non-organic agricultural products as organic, which usually results in a non-certified operation either becoming certified or no longer representing their product as organic.

We can also issue Notices of Warning, which typically concern minor violations that have been corrected and that advise businesses of penalties that may result from future violations. In more serious cases, the NOP can go further, including pursuing the suspension or revocation of organic certification or accreditation, as well as assessing civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation for noncompliant sales of agricultural products.

We take our enforcement role seriously, because we know it is essential to creating a level playing field for all organic stakeholders and maintaining consumer confidence in organic products. The NOP works hard to efficiently process and close all complaints. In the last three fiscal years, the NOP has processed and closed 260, 285, and 390 complaints, respectively.

In addition, the NOP has increasingly prevailed in enforcement actions that go through USDA administrative court proceedings. In FY 2015, enforcement activities resulted in 13 settlement agreements and civil penalties in excess of $1.8 million. For the first quarter of FY16, enforcement activities have already resulted in five settlement agreements and civil penalties of nearly $930,000. You can read more about the NOP Compliance & Enforcement activities on the NOP Organic Enforcement web page.

Compliance and enforcement activities are key to maintaining organic integrity, and the NOP continues to strengthen enforcement efforts to ensure a fair market for all organic products. To support our efforts, the Organic INTEGRITY Database now allows certifying agents to regularly update the list of organic operations they certify. And by publicizing fraudulent organic certificates, the NOP increases awareness within the organic trade community when we uncover violators. Through all of these efforts, we remain committed to protecting the integrity of the organic seal for consumers and businesses.

Miles McEvoy is deputy administrator of the National Organic Program.