Most of us will agree that consumer interest in organic foods is continuing to increase. This interest is fueling changes across all corners of the food business from farming to grocery aisles, to home delivery trends to new product launches and business acquisitions to restaurant menus. At the center of the US Organic food business is the little green label that says, USDA Certified Organic; and the first milestone for organic food certification begins with crops and livestock.
Organic foods is a $35 billion dollar industry that has tripled over the past 10 years. However, according to Wednesday’s article in the WSJ, the boom in organics has highlighted shortfalls in ability of the USDA “to monitor over 25k farms and other organizations that sell organic crops and livestock”, specifically with the “certifying agents”, i.e. the folks who authorize the familiar, sought after and heretofore trusted green USDA Certified Organic label. So, USDA Certified Organic, or is it? Let’s take a look….
USDA Certified Organic by the numbers
There are currently 81 accredited “certifying agents” or groups in the US authorized to stamp food organic. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducted a compete review of 37 of the 81 this year and cited 23 of the 37 (62%) for “failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms…the 23 didn’t properly conduct onsite inspections or correctly review applications for organic certification among other things.”
The WSJ further notes that since 2005 the USDA has cited 40% of the 81 certifying agents for conducting incomplete inspections, 16% of the 81 have ignored organic farms potential use of banned pesticides and antibiotics, and 5% allowed co-mingling or organic and non-organic products.
USDA Certifying agents include various entities from non-profits, state agencies and even large multinational corporations. Similarly to for instance Kosher certification, the certifying agents are paid by those they certify although the important difference is that USDA organic certification requirements are based upon federal government standards and it is the US government who authorizes agents and is responsible for enforcement of standards. Certification agents and organizations cited for sub-standard enforcement issues are given the opportunity to correct their shortfalls. The USDA accreditation program began in 2002 and since that time 3 agents have been permanently removed.
The USDA does not apparently currently maintain a national database of organic farms or a centralized database of farms that have been suspended. There is a non-USDA database of organic farms available here that uses red flags to denote those suspended. Those farms that are suspended from USDA certification can re-apply for certification, pay small fines and be reinstated. According to the WSJ article the USDA has “turned to such settlements with increasing frequency.”
Also noteworthy, the USDA Organic program is part of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
USDA Certified: What This Means for the Food Business
As consumer interest in organic foods increase, consumer distrust of food and nutrition labeling is growing as their reliability and standards are questioned by very vocal consumer groups. Lawsuits targeting use of “all natural” labeling have been filed against Whole Foods, Trader Joes’s and General Mills among others, sparking labelling changes. The battle over GMOs is widespread and complicated. Ranking services and apps such as Food Scores are being developed and put to use.
However, the USDA Organic label is much coveted because as noted by Joe Dickson, senior quality-standards coordinator at Whole Foods, “the organic stamp increases the level of integrity for retailers and consumers.” Simply put, if consumers question the integrity of the USDA certified organic label, this would be problematic for those using the label. Obviously consumers will not pay the higher price for foods certified organic is they don’t trust the certification. The whole “all natural” labeling fiasco has certainly raised consumer concerns.
It is to the advantage of US food businesses to protect consumer trust in the USDA certified organic label. The development of a real time, interactive USDA database is a step in the right direction and should be supported. Further, reducing “label creep” with clear and specific designations for what you, as a food purveyor mean by your organic, all natural, nonGMO, or ingredient labeling and pricing. If you are using the USDA Organic label, police yourself and your own supply chain.
As a consumer, I am willing to read labels but unwilling to feel like I need a spread cheat to determine which chicken breasts I should buy, i.e. the ones labeled “all natural”, the ones labeled “free range” but not labeled “all natural” and of course the difference between the ones labeled “free of antibiotics” but not labeled all natural. (Are you listening, Trader Joe’s, even your team members can’t explain the differences!) I do look for the green USDA Organic label and want to be able to rely on its integrity. As someone who has sought USDA certification for brands, it seemed to be a rigorous process. USDA certified organic should mean something.