May 20, 2021
7 ways the National Organic Program enforced its standards in 2020
Stephen Kloosterman

Certified-organic farming is hard work, and it can be competitive.

The National Organic Program, (NOP) part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, tries to keep the playing field level through enforcement of the organic standards and rules.

The program recently circulated an official report of its enforcement activity that touched on a number of different efforts and provided detailed numbers for some of the activities.

Here are seven interesting excerpts from that report:

1. The organic industry continues to grow.

generic farm market photo
Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

The NOP noted that the organic sector continues to grow in terms of number of farms and businesses, estimated total sales and even funding to the NOP:

“The number of certified organic farms and businesses continues to steadily grow. At the start of 2021, there were 45,578 certified organic businesses worldwide; 28,454, about 62%, were in the United States. The program serves a growing organic market. U.S. organic sales totaled a record $55.1 billion in 2019, up approximately 5% from 2018. Increased funding has allowed NOP to significantly increase its staff over the past year. As of January 2021, there are 63 people on staff, with more than half of the staff now in the Accreditation Division and the Compliance and Enforcement Division.”

2. Unsuitable materials were found by two states.

Oregon Department of Agriculture logo

The NOP highlighted the 2020 alert raised by Oregon and California over a fertilizer product that had been labeled as OK for organic use:

“In 2020, two States issued stop use notices for organic producers regarding a fertilizer that was found to contain prohibited pesticides. The States of California and Washington conducted repeated testing, which led them to quarantine the fertilizer for violating State laws. The NOP had also been investigating multiple complaints regarding the manufacturer.”

The NOP also added some context for its own role in such matters:

“The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) does not give NOP authority over material review organizations. As such, the program relies on third-party certifiers and other reviewers to determine which substances may be used in organic production and handling. All certifiers have been notified of the quarantines, and the NOP will coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency and State agencies of agriculture for further action.”

3. Organic grain fraudsters were caught.

grain generic photo
Photo: USDA/Stephen Ausmus

Fraudulently marketing grain as organic has been an issue for crops grown both domestically and abroad in the past. The NOP highlighted two cases in particular for the 2020 calendar year:

“Over the past year, NOP further deepened our partnerships with enforcement agencies to advance priority initiatives. These “many hands” support surveillance and enforcement across complex organic supply chains. For example, a Missouri man pleaded guilty in Federal court in December 2020 to his role in a $142-million scheme to sell non-organic grain as organic. This is the sixth guilty plea in an ongoing criminal investigation. Five other individuals have already been sentenced to prison and multi-million-dollar asset forfeitures.

“In November 2020, a South Dakota man pleaded guilty to his role in a similar scheme amounting to about $75 million in fraud. His sentencing hearing is pending. The NOP continues to investigate regular complaints of grain fraud in cooperation with accredited organic certifiers and the USDA Office of the Inspector General.”

4. NOP is working with other agencies.

Andrew Regalado, a senior NOP analyst, now works as part of the CBP Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center. Photo: USDA

The NOP reported one of its key staff is now working at an interagency center housed at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection:

“In July 2020, a senior National Organic Program analyst began working as part of the interagency Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center (CTAC) based at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CTAC is an operational extension of One-U.S. Government at the Border that works to prevent, deter, and investigate violations of U.S. import and export laws by facilitating information and resource sharing among participating Government agencies.

“Andrew Regalado represents NOP and other Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) programs as part of a collaborative Governmentwide team. This collaboration gives NOP a direct line to CBP stakeholders and data and provides unique insights into how other Federal enforcement agencies work.”

5. Many complaints are really just requests for information.

USDA Organic Oversight and Enforcement Update
Source: USDA Organic Oversight and Enforcement Update

The NOP detailed its work looking at resolving complaints. About 750 complaints and inquiries come in each year, it said. About 40% are inquiries resolved by providing more information:

“Inquiries allow the NOP to educate consumers about organic labels and resources like the Organic Integrity Database. For example, one out of four inquiries is easily closed after the NOP confirms for a consumer that a farm or business is certified organic. Keeping these inquiries out of the complaints system allows the program to dedicate more resources to complex, high-risk investigations.

“Many investigations conclude that, while the initial allegations raised concerns, the evidence did not show any violations of the organic rules. These investigations provide an opportunity to verify compliance, without drawing time away from cases where there have been violations.

“For cases where there are violations of the regulations, the program’s overarching goal is compliance. Most of our investigations end when farms and businesses have fully complied with the organic rules.”

 6. The NOP closed out cases of many substantiated complaints.

Organic investigations by year chart
Source: NOP Enforcement Dashboard

The NOP wrote that in 2020 it was able to close three-fourths of its older investigations and close most of its newer cases within 12 months’ time. It added later that an increased number of domestic and international investigations were able to be closed because of new enforcement staff:

“The outcomes of substantiated complaint investigations include different administrative actions, such as sending written warning notices, posting fraudulent certificates to the NOP website, or filing complaints for a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge.

“When the NOP has the evidence to support enforcement actions, investigators use a variety of tools to levy civil penalties, establish settlement agreements, and in appropriate cases, refer bad actors for criminal investigation. The NOP continues to rely on the California State Organic Program and trading partners (e.g., the European Union and other country governments) to investigate complaints against operations in their geographic areas.”

7. The organic seal could be trademarked.

The Agricultural Marketing Service wrote that it was working on a new avenue to protect against misuse of its organic seal.

“AMS has started a long-term intellectual property protection project to register the NOP organic seal and other AMS marks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) for official trademark protection. The NOP trademark package was submitted to the USPTO for official trademarking in September 2020. Federal copyright enforcement rules will provide another important authority to further restrict fraudulent usage and allow prosecution and commodity seizures for misuse of the seal.”

Top photo: organic leafy greens are for sale by the Bigg Riggs Farm at Old Town Farmers’ Market, in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

Stephen Kloosterman is the managing editor of Organic Grower.

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