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CFS Files Legal Action Against USDA on National Organic Standards

October 16, 2002

In order to address the growing threat to the integrity of the organic standards, today the Center for Food Safety (CFS) filed a formal legal petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The petition demands that the agency immediately establish a peer review panel to oversee the agency’s accrediting of organic certifiers. The peer review panel is mandated by both a statute and regulation yet USDA has repeatedly refused to establish this crucial oversight body. Joining CFS as petitioners are Beyond Pesticides, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Appropriate certification of organic farms is the fundamental enforcement mechanism of organic standards. Fueling public concern over a reduction in the integrity of the new “organic” label is the appearance of numerous new, previously unknown certifying agents applying to USDA for accreditation. Since 2000, the number of organic certifying agents has jumped from 49 to 122. This unexpected increase in the number of accreditation applicants raises troubling questions about USDA’s ability to properly assess the qualifications of the large volume of new certifiers seeking accreditation.

Equally disturbing is the agency’s refusal to institute the legally mandated, public Peer Review Panel designed to evaluate the USDA’s accreditation of organic certifiers. The Peer Review Panel called for in the Organic Food Production Act is the public enforcement mechanism designed to ensure USDA’s accreditation procedures and decisions are appropriate and comport with the law. Absent this Peer Review Panel, consumer groups, many organic farmers and farmer-based certifying organizations fear that large agribusiness corporations will have an undue influence on who will be certifying organic producers and how that certification will be conducted.

CFS Executive Director Andrew Kimbrell stated, “The agency’s refusal to allow for independent oversight of its actions threatens the integrity of the “organic” label. The decision on who is to certify organic foods needs to be in full view of the public, where it cannot be influenced by corporate interests.”

“Continued failure of USDA to implement citizens oversight or peer review of their organic accreditation program not only threatens organic integrity and consumer confidence, but also fails to meet already established international norms,” said Michael Sligh, director of sustainable agriculture for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), and founding chair of USDA National Organic Standards Board.

Farmer-based certifying entities are especially concerned that without adequate oversight of the USDA accreditation program they will be discriminated against by the agency during review and audit of their accreditation applications. Recent accounts of inconsistent clarifications from the National Organic Program (NOP) calls into question whether the NOP is equitably reviewing and scrutinizing all organic certifying agents’ applications for accreditation.

In addition to the lack of oversight for the accreditation process,there is also increasing concern that the USDA is abusing its authority by creating loopholes in enforcement of the organic standards. One company has attempted to pressure the NOP into relaxing the 100 percent organic feed requirement for organic chicken production. Such exemptions would quickly erode consumer confidence in organic foods and erode the industry.

“The Center for Food Safety will be monitoring the USDA to ensure that the organic standards are upheld and that no exemptions are allowed,” stated Rebecca Spector, campaign director for CFS. “The organic label must live up to the expectations of the millions of consumers that have come to expect quality and integrity from organic foods.”

Today’s legal action is part of CFS’ Organic & Beyond campaign, a broad coalition of legal, scientific, environmental and farming experts joined together to fight the growing threat to the integrity of organic standards and to promote farming practices that go “beyond organic.” The Organic & Beyond campaign provides consumers, the media and policy makers with up-to-date information and analysis of implementation of the national organic standards. Additionally the campaign will launch legal and grass roots campaigns on specific issues related to organic food and farming.

“The campaign can help create a food system that respects farmers, communities and the environment,” said Wes Jackson founder of The Land Institute.

To view petition, click HERE.