Revealed: Monitoring of Organic Food a Travesty
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That faint "we told you so" ringing in your ears might be coming from the folks at the Cornucopia Institute, the Wisconsin-based watchdog group that has being saying for years that the United States Department of Agriculture's enforcement of federal organic laws was, to put it kindly, pathetic. According to Cornucopia, the USDA has always clearly favored industrial operators who bent (or broke) every rule they could to compete with small, conscientious farmers who hewed to the letter and spirit of organic policy.
Guess what? Cornucopia and other organic consumer advocates were right. This week the USDA's own Office of the Inspector General came out with a formal report on the UDSA's monitoring of its organic program during the Clinton and Bush years (click here for the PDF). It couldn't have been more scathing.
The inspector cited 14 areas of major concern, including the following:
• California inspectors are simply not equipped to enforce the organic laws. Bad news for all of us. With 2,000 "organic" farms exporting to all corners of the nation, that state tills the most organic acreage in the country.
• In five cases where companies were known to be selling inorganic food illegally under the USDA Organic label, the USDA completely failed to take action against one of them. The four other cases took as long as 32 months to resolve, during which time the firms continued to sell mislabeled produce.
• Since 1990, organic laws have called for periodic residue testing. None of the regulating agencies the inspector investigated had done any residue testing. The reason? Too expensive.
• Of 41 complaints filed since 2004, no fewer than 19 cases were not only unresolved by 2009—in addition, regulators had no idea of their status.
• The USDA completely failed to do required onsite reviews of at least one foreign certifying agent.
"Spotty enforcement of organic rules since 2002 has enabled a number of giant factory farms, engaged in suspicious practices, to place ethical family farms at a competitive disadvantage, particularly inorganic dairy, beef, and egg production," Cornucopia's Will Fantle said.
New appointees to regulatory oversight roles at the USDA embraced the Inspector General's recommendations and say they will implement the necessary changes.
Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. His work on a dairy farm and fishing boat taught him that writing about food was easier than producing it.