The OrganicEye View:
Years ago, major papers in farm states like Wisconsin used to have a full-time “farm reporter.” I first met Rick Barrett decades ago when he was the agriculture reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and I was a lobbyist for the Farmers Union. This guy can write. He’s an excellent journalist and we are lucky to have him continuing his craft as a business reporter at the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The last paper that I knew of that had a full-time farm reporter devoted solely to agriculture was the Des Moines Register and he retired a number of years ago.If you live in Wisconsin, you would be well-served to subscribe to the Journal online (currently with a special introductory offer of one dollar per month): https://cm.jsonline.com/specialoffer/
USDA pledges to crack down on fraud in the certified organic label, but is it enough?
New organic rules enforcement would be the biggest update in decades
By Rick Barrett Published Feb. 16, 2023
Farmers raising organic crops and livestock are hopeful there will be less fraud and more confidence in the “certified organic” label following a recent government decision to strengthen enforcement of the label’s standards.
But some say the changes could come slowly, if at all, in a $60 billion industry that’s seen explosive growth and where rules haven’t always been enforced.
“Let’s not all declare victory and go home. A certain degree of skepticism and continued vigilance” will be needed, said Mark Kastel, founder of OrganicEye, an industry watchdog group based in La Farge.
At stake is the new “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s the biggest update to organic regulations in more than 30 years ago, according to the USDA, and it’s meant to stop misuse of the term “certified organic” in livestock feed and products on grocery store shelves.
For years, farmers have complained of unfair competition from growers and livestock producers who hadn’t followed rules for such things as pesticide use and animal welfare, yet claimed their products were organic. There have been many instances of imported grain, labeled as organic, that turned out to be unverifiable or fraudulent, said Kate Mendenhall, executive director of the Organic Farmers Association.
“Organic farmers have consistently ranked National Organic Program enforcement and stopping import fraud as a top priority. U.S. organic farmers and consumers will both benefit from a quick and strong implementation of the rule,” Mendenhall said.
Rules include more record keeping, certification
Finalized by the USDA in January, it calls for more robust recordkeeping, traceability practices, and fraud prevention in the organic food chain. It also requires import certificates for all organic products that come from outside the United States and certification of businesses, such as brokers and traders, at critical points in the supply chain.
The changes will provide a “significant increase in oversight and enforcement authority to reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production,” the USDA said.
It could have a huge impact on the industry, according to Mendenhall, an organic farmer from Iowa.
“It’s closing the gap on many things that we’ve been saying are a problem,” she said.
Farmers feel changes are overdue
Wisconsin farmers say the changes are overdue as consumers have increasingly sought products free from pesticides and genetically modified organisms, and that reflect animal welfare standards.
“I think any sort of strengthening of the rule is good,” said Paul Maggio, an organic farmer from Burlington.
He and his wife, Marisa, raise grass-fed beef cattle, pigs, and poultry on their Starry Night farm. They practice “regenerative agriculture” focused on healthy soil and sustainable farming practices.
Paul is a former Chicago futures broker who became a fulltime farmer about seven years ago. Marisa, a former accountant turned yoga instructor and health coach, grew up in Puerto Rico and is now equally involved in the farming operation.
“Our farm is USDA certified-organic, and we believe this is important for quality and health of our animals and our land,” the Maggios say on their website.
It will take at least a year for the new rule to be fully implemented, but farmers say it’s still the gold standard.
“There’s a lot of distrust out there with labels like ‘natural’ or ‘farm raised,’ that have no meanings behind them whatsoever,” said Cori Skolaski, executive director of MOSA Certified Organic, a Viroqua based firm that verifies whether organic farms are meeting the USDA standards.
“We’re always trying to strengthen the organic label,” Skolaski said.
Boosts in consumer confidence expected
Increased enforcement will raise consumer confidence, said Ed Kelly with High Meadow Farm in Johnson Creek.
“It’s going to put more trust in the label, I believe,” he said.
Wisconsin is among the top states in the number of certified organic farms, many of them small or midsize operations catering to local customers.
But what’s normally been a profitable business has been hit hard by rising costs, and in some cases, unfair competition.
Wisconsin’s organic dairy farmers, for instance, have been squeezed by mega-sized farms that may have more than 100 times as many cows. And while some in Wisconsin claimed their oversized brethren weren’t playing by the rules, for the most part, government regulators dismissed the complaints.
Wisconsin lost around 23% of its organic dairy farms last year, according to Kastel.
“What was supposed to be the savior of family farming is now in reverse. They can’t compete with ‘organic’ livestock factories in the West milking as many as 20,000 cows, and they can’t compete with fraud,” he said.
Kastel said there’s nothing inherently wrong with the new rules, although they’re not a panacea, and the existing ones haven’t been enforced nearly enough.
“We have hammered on the USDA for years about this,” he said.
Also, the implementation will take a while to give stakeholders time to conform with the changes.
“With a one-year phase in, it will probably take a number of years to really ascertain whether the SOE rules have the teeth that they are purported to have,” Kastel said.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel