The Unqualified Applause for Updated Organic Regulations

Stock-holm syn-drome

noun: feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage taking by a victim towards a captor.

The big news in the organic industry in mid-January was the publication in the Federal Register of a new set of complicated and comprehensive rules that will purportedly help tighten up the heretofore loose oversight of organic commerce that the USDA and the industry’s largest lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, had been assuring us was bulletproof.

But let’s not all declare victory and go home. A certain degree of skepticism and continued vigilance by committed organic community stakeholders (farmers, ethical business interests, and consumers) is well-warranted.

Let’s look at the pattern of how the powers-that-be in the industry react every time the organic label receives a new blackeye in the media due to a seemingly never-ending series of controversy, fraud, and scandals:

  1. NGOs, like OrganicEye, acting as industry watchdogs, spend years uncovering and documenting serious fraud and deficiencies in oversight.
  1. The USDA’s National Organic Program and lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association (OTA), in an effort at damage control, frequently do nothing more than thump their chests, assuring the public of how judicious and effective their oversight is.
  1. Then a major scandal hits the papers and the OTA immediately announces they are forming a “task force” of their corporate members to investigate best practices. The USDA subsequently states that they can’t do any effective enforcement without new rulemaking (and in many cases the OTA, representing many of the agribusinesses that have benefited from the ongoing fraud, leads the public push supporting new rulemaking).
  1. New regulations take, literally, years to a decade or more to promulgate (some allege that the glacial pace is intentional). Then the new rules are adopted and announced with great fanfare, as is the case with the new so-called “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” (SOE) enhancements just enacted.
  1. And finally, even after all that, very little additional enforcement takes place. With a one-year phase in, it will probably take a number of years to really ascertain whether the new SOE rules have the teeth that they are purported to have and whether the USDA develops the backbone for more aggressive enforcement, rather than, essentially, acting as an industry cheerleader.

This scenario has repeated itself time and time again. I spent years ringing the alarm bell concerning unregulated imports China. In the early years, after a 12-year USDA delay in developing the regulations necessary to implement the Organic Foods Production Act, the USDA had essentially contracted certification oversight to the Chinese military. Freedom of Information documents indicated that, after our public complaints, they attempted to placate our concerns by suggesting top staff had “visited” China, when in fact they did nothing more than attend a short conference (rather than carefully monitor Chinese certification). Subsequent audits, after years delay, would show major flaws in oversight in China.

The OTA and its members, in the interim, were happy to throw US family farmers under the bus, procuring their commodities and ingredients from China and former Soviet Bloc states with endemic levels of commercial fraud (counterfeit name brand consumer goods, intellectual property theft, adulterated food and pharmaceuticals, etc.). We don’t even trust these countries, after disastrous experiences, to produce petfood, let alone what we are feeding our infants and children.

The organic manure hit the fan after I helped spearhead years of research and then partnered to support the Washington Post in a major investigative expose documenting wholesale fraud in “organic” animal feed being imported from Turkey, Kazakhstan, Russia, and other Eastern Europe countries. And now, after many years, the new Strengthening Organic Enforcement rules are the result.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the new rules, although some other organic advocacy groups suggest that they haven’t gone far enough. But what is dead-wrong is the USDA’s delay and inadequate enforcement — using new rulemaking as an excuse.

The USDA seems to be better at political spin than executing their charge from Congress in protecting the interests of organic stakeholders. Subsequent to the Washington Post coverage of fraudulent imports, and after the former USDA organic administrator assured the public of the propriety of imports from Eastern Europe with great fanfare, the current management at the USDA’s organic program, in a damning admission, proclaimed that 75% of “Black Sea Region” organic operations certified under the USDA had either voluntarily relinquished their organic certification or were forced to do so. Seventy-five percent! No arrests, no fines, and no other penalties that we know of.

I call it damning because it’s an admission that we, as organic consumers, have been paying a premium for livestock products for years when the animals that produced our eggs, meat, and milk were consuming a material percentage of their feed that was really conventional.

And it’s important to note that cleaning house in Eastern Europe happened under the current, old regulations. They didn’t need these new ones to act.

More recently, the USDA responded to allegations of fraud in India, which had filled the void as a major exporter to the US after the USDA clamped down on Eastern Europe. It was one of the countries with an “equivalency agreement” with the USDA. That means the USDA, in essence, subcontracted the certification process to local authorities. Again, it took many years of documenting gross fraud, and India becoming one of the largest importers of organic feed and other food ingredients, before the USDA took action.

It became a game of whack a mole until the USDA finally recognized the problem and acted, eliminating the Indian government’s independent oversight of products certified under the USDA — after untold fraudulent organic commodities had already been consumed.

After years of the USDA betraying fundamental organic precepts, it’s disheartening to see many other public interest groups and certifiers join with the business interests in acting as industry cheerleaders rather than protecting the interests of the public. That’s what I refer to as the Organic Stockholm Syndrome.

As the organic industry has grown to over $60 billion annually, with lots of money flowing to nonprofits from agribusinesses and taxpayer funds doled out by the USDA, a more famous food muckraker than myself, Upton Sinclair, is still as relevant as ever with his declaration that, “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Mark Kastel is Executive Director of OrganicEye, a farm policy research group based in La Farge, Wisconsin. The organization is best known as the country’s most eminently qualified and aggressive organic industry watchdog.