USDA Failures Necessitate Reinventing the Federal Certification Program
LA FARGE, Wis. — OrganicEye, a public interest group best known as one of the country’s preeminent organic industry watchdogs, has announced its move from the “sausage making capital of the world,” Washington, DC, to one of the epicenters of organic farming and food production on the West Coast of Wisconsin. The farm policy research group, which began as a project of Beyond Pesticides in 2019 and became a fully independent, tax-exempt public charity on March 1, 2022, will continue to focus on defending the “time-honored philosophy and legal definition of organic farming and food production.”
As organic agriculture and food marketing has grown into an over $60 billion industry, corporate agribusiness has used its influence within the USDA—and many certification agencies it oversees—to shift primary organic production from family-scale farms to large livestock factories, massive hydroponic/soilless greenhouses, and imports that have all too often proven fraudulent.
“We are happy to announce that OrganicEye will continue to be led by Mark Kastel,” stated Jim Gerritsen, one of the elders in the organic farming movement and newly elected president of the OrganicEye board. Kastel, who has run OrganicEye since its beginning and was one of the founders of The Cornucopia Institute, brings over 35 years of diverse involvement in the industry. His background includes work as a certified agricultural producer, business development consultant, and registered lobbyist, making Kastel one of the most experienced independent fraud investigators in the organic industry.
Research and public pressure spearheaded by Kastel has compelled the USDA, Justice Department, and FBI to take several major enforcement actions resulting in decertification, jail terms, fines, suicides, and millions of dollars in settlements of class action lawsuits related to consumer fraud. His efforts have also been instrumental in helping bust large international crime syndicates laundering conventional commodities as “organic.”
“Mark’s knowledge is widely respected in the organic farming community and by key high-integrity business leaders, while, at the same time, feared and reviled by powerful interests profiting from the weakening of organic standards,” Gerritsen added. “With Mark’s leadership, we will amplify the voices of committed organic stakeholders who share our sense of urgency to stop the degradation of the environment and health, with organic as a critical piece of the solution.”
“By being independent, and based in Wisconsin, we will be able to lower our cost of operations, simplify our donor-relations (tax-deductible checks can now be made out directly to “OrganicEye”), and be thoroughly immersed in our agrarian, organic community where there is lots to share between farmers, business entrepreneurs, and eaters,” stated Kastel. “We can’t thank our individual donors, foundation-funders, and sponsors enough for helping us become financially stable and independent—and poised to have an even greater impact.”
Gerritsen is a well-known and respected leader in the organic farming movement in his own right. A certified organic seed potato farmer from Bridgewater, Maine, he might be best known as president and co-founder of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and the lead plaintiff in ‘OSGATA et al. v. Monsanto.’
Gerritsen and Kastel are joined in OrganicEye leadership by industry veterans Will Fantle and Bill Heart.
(L to R) Executive Director Mark Kastel with board members: Bill Heart, Will Fantle, and Jim Gerritsen
The primary focus of OrganicEye’s work will remain the same. Kastel, who serves as the Executive Director of OrganicEye, stated, “You don’t have to take my word for the need of this organization’s work, based on the inadequacy of enforcement actions by the USDA’s National Organic Program. With the backdrop of thousands of cases of fraud submitted to the NOP, there is a legacy of independent audits by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) criticizing their oversight of certifiers and poor record of bringing fraudulent operations to justice.”
Although OrganicEye has appealed to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack for a systemic shift at its National Organic Program, away from a disproportionate reliance on the industry’s trade-lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, Secretary Vilsack recently appointed the former general legal counsel and head lobbyist at the OTA to oversee organic and emerging markets in his office. Additionally, analysis by OrganicEye shows that the majority of the members of the National Organic Standards Board, created by Congress to buffer organic rulemaking from the influence of corporate lobbyists, have formal relationships with the OTA.
OrganicEye has announced that in 2022 they will be aggressively promoting their thesis that the tens of millions of dollars that are invested each year by taxpayers, farmers, and businesses in the certification process are not catching the scofflaws. “Based on our experience,” Kastel said, “almost none of the major fraud investigations have started with annual inspections.” OrganicEye’s first-hand involvement has found they are most often instigated by current or former employees, former spouses, or competitors “ratting-out” the perpetrators. “We need to fundamentally reallocate the funding to more effectively catch these offenders,” Kastel added.
In addition to the scores of industry “intelligence agents” with whom Kastel has worked over the past 18 years as the organic industry’s best-known watchdog, OrganicEye has established a toll-free hotline, 1-844-EYE-TIPS (844-393-8477), to help facilitate tips from the public.
“We are not in the rumor business. Intel has to be verified with additional witnesses, documentation, photographs, or other evidence,” Kastel added. “We encourage stakeholders to come forward if they have firsthand knowledge concerning fraud which damages the value of the organic label for all those producing food in an honest and ethical manner.”
The organization emphatically stated that the identity of all whistleblowers and tipsters will be held in strict confidence.
For more information, visit www.organiceye.org.
In addition to the OIG audits, legally mandated peer reviews also sharply criticized the USDA organic program for grossly inadequate staffing and management overseeing the burgeoning number of documented cases of illegal organic certificates, domestic fraud, and imports laundering conventional commodities as organic.
“Here’s the bottom line,” stated OrganicEye’s Mark Kastel. “Private certifiers have an economic disincentive to do aggressive enforcement. And inspectors are all too often well-intentioned young folks with no experience in production agriculture or forensic accounting going toe-to-toe with seasoned veterans who are going to have their lunch every day if the intent is to perpetrate fraud.”
“We need to reinvent a program that gets rid of the ‘busywork’ of annual inspections. It’s onerous for farmers and businesspeople and burns up resources that could be used to actually protect organic integrity,” added Kastel.
More from Kastel: “I can tell you that, based on my extensive collaboration with the NOP, Justice Department, and FBI in helping bust the largest frauds in the history of the organic industry, virtually none of them come out of annual inspections. They almost always emanate from current or former employees, former spouses, or competitors coming forward, confidentially, to identify the scofflaws.”
Considering the tens of millions of dollars spent with private certifiers and tens of millions more funded by the taxpayers, OrganicEye believes that shifting to a more effective program could be done in a cost/revenue-neutral manner. “Our vision is that comprehensive audits would be conducted every five years by industry-veterans with production agriculture experience and knowledge in fiscal fraud investigations, instead of by inspectors fresh out of school and having gone through a rudimentary training program, some of whom may have never set foot on a farm and have little or no experience in forensic accounting,” Kastel continued.
“We need to re-envision certification, concentrating on the conflicts of interest and shifting from annual inspections by amateurs to comprehensive audits once every five years by seasoned professionals—with liberal, unannounced, audits and testing in between,” Kastel concluded. “The IRS does not audit every taxpayer every year. But they scare the hell out of all of us.”
Organic Trade Association and the Washington Revolving Door
Lobby Group Taps Former USDA Appointee/Corporate Executive as New CEO
Commentary by Mark Kastel, Executive Director, OrganicEye
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) announced the appointment, on March 29, 2022, of Tom Chapman as the new Chief Executive Officer of the trade-lobby group based in Washington DC.
Mr. Chapman was appointed by USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack to serve a five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in 2015. During part of his term, he acted as the board’s chair, as well. While serving on the NOSB, he was an executive with Clif Bar, a prominent OTA member.
“It’s the perfect choice—if the intent is to ramp-up the influence between the OTA and the USDA,” said Mark Kastel, Executive Director of OrganicEye, a farm policy research group and one of the country’s preeminent organic industry watchdogs. “But for those of us who care about protecting family-scale farmers, and having access to authentic organic food, the news perpetuates a sad legacy.”
The following comments can be attributed to Mr. Kastel and/or OrganicEye:
While NOSB Chairman, Mr. Chapman partnered with the USDA National Organic Program Director at the time, Miles McEvoy, to rewrite the board’s Policy and Procedures Manual (PPM), stripping the power of the NOSB to create their own work plans and agenda. And, without objection, during his chairmanship on the NOSB, the USDA stood the Sunset regulations on their head, pretty much putting the OTA in the driver’s seat in terms of non-organic and synthetic materials approved for use in organics (because most of the board members now have a direct relationship with the organization).
[Note: previously all non-organic/synthetic materials approved for use in organics would sunset every five years, with a two thirds vote required for relisting. Based on the collaboration of Mr. McEvoy and Mr. Chapman, that was reversed. Materials now, in essence, stay on the approved list in perpetuity unless they are voted off by a two thirds super majority. We now live “in the land of the midnight sun.”]
The proverbial revolving door in Washington is alive and well in the organic regulatory theater at the USDA. Connecting the dots:
After ethics complaints were filed by Mr. Kastel against Mr. McEvoy, he retired to go ‘birdwatching’ and ended up working as a consultant for two of the largest OTA members—and the largest certifiers in the country—CCOF and Oregon Tilth (both controversially certifying “organic” livestock factories and soilless hydroponics produce). Mr. McEvoy is currently also a contractor working for the OTA.
Mr. Chapman gained prominence as a political appointee to the NOSB and now will take the helm at the country’s largest organic corporate lobby. He was formerly employed by Quality Assurance International (QAI), another prominent OTA member and the most corporate-preferred certifier. He was on the board of CCOF, the country’s largest certifier which partnered with the OTA in lobbying the NOP to approve soilless hydroponics production (subject to a lawsuit that claimed that was in conflict with the enabling organic legislation requiring maintaining or improving soil fertility).
As I like to say, “Why is organics any different than anything else that happens in Washington? Because we said so!”
Those of us who were involved in lobbying for the Organic Foods Production Act in the late 1980s know that the NOSB was designed as a buffer between corporate lobbyists and the rulemaking. Our values have been betrayed, as have the spirit and letter of the law (the intent of Congress).
And so, I say again: Mr. Chapman is the perfect choice! He can now continue the long-standing direct dialogue between OTA lobbyists and political appointees at the USDA.
Additionally (and I wish I was making this up), Secretary Vilsack’s new organic and emerging markets point person is the former chief legal counsel and head lobbyist at the Organic Trade Association.
It’s one big happy family!
Unless you’re milking cows, getting your hands dirty and cracking a sweat for a living, and faced with competition from “factory farms” milking thousands of “organic” cows each in the desert West. And living on the edge without any security because one of the OTA corporation members (like Danone, which owns the Horizon milk label and sits on the OTA board) can sign your death warrant on a whim, as they have recently done by terminating contracts with scores of family farmers in the Northeast.
The Organic Trade Association has worked very hard, and invested heavily, to create the false impression that it is an umbrella group representing all elements in the organic movement. That is patently false.
They do not represent farmers. They represent businesses that buy from farmers.
And they do not represent eaters. They represent manufacturers, marketers, distributors, and retailers that sell to consumers.
Throughout the history of the organic movement, as it has morphed into an industry, the OTA has become just one more self-serving Washington-based lobby group representing the interests of businesses rather than society as a whole.
Organic Trade Association Announces New CEO & Executive Director
Tom Chapman will replace outgoing CEO Laura Batcha in April 2022
Washington DC (March 29, 2022) — The Organic Trade Association (OTA) today announced the selection of its next CEO and Executive Director, Tom Chapman. The announcement was made during OTA’s 2022 Organic Week, which Chapman attended. Chapman’s hiring concludes a year-long planned succession process for Batcha that began in 2021. Batcha has been a key figure in the organic movement for several decades. She joined the staff of OTA in 2008 and has served as CEO and Executive Director for the past nine years. Chapman, who also has a long history of service to the organic industry – including a five-year stint on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) – will formally assume the position at the association on April 18.
“I couldn’t imagine a better, more experienced person for this role than Tom,” says outgoing OTA Executive Director and CEO Laura Batcha. “Tom has been contributing to the advancement of the organic industry for nearly 20 years, and has led many different aspects of the work, which gives him a great sense of the entire organic tapestry. With Tom at the helm and working alongside our capable staff and dedicated members, OTA and organic will continue to thrive.”
Chapman is a proactive leader with a deep background in organic that spans the value chain. Over his many years in the industry, Chapman has helped to advance certification and compliance, successfully managed global supply chains and managed multi-million dollar contracts, and worked closely with diverse brands, growers, and other organic stakeholders. He has significant experience building relationships from the ground up and nurturing public-private partnerships. Chapman is also a skilled policy setter with years of experience at both the state and national levels.
“I am honored to be joining the Organic Trade Association,” says Chapman. “More and more, Americans are looking for products that protect the environment, that make positive impacts on climate change and that enhance their communities – choosing organic achieves all that and more. I am thrilled to be leading an organization with such incredible staff who are ready to champion organic causes on behalf of our members.”
Most recently, Chapman served as Senior Director, Supply Chain at Kinder’s Sauce and Seasoning. Before that, he worked with OTA members Clif Bar and Quality Assurance International. Chapman has also served as a board member with OTA members Mercaris and California Certified Organic Farmers, as NOSB Chair from 2015-2020, and as a member of the California Organic Products Advisory Committee at the California Department of Agriculture from 2007-2016.
“We are thrilled to have Tom Chapman join the Organic Trade Association as our new CEO,” says Paul Schiefer, OTA Board Chair and Senior Director of Sustainability at Amy’s Kitchen. “Tom has dedicated his career to furthering organic agriculture and brings professional expertise, values-alignment, and a collaborative and deliberate management style that delivers results. We have full confidence that Tom will make an immediate positive impact to grow our trade, move our bold steps forward, and support continuous improvement to achieve even more remarkable social and environmental outcomes.”
Source: Organic Trade Association