by Marion Nestle
Mar 5 2011

Update on organics

On March 02, USDA announced that it was revoking its accreditation of two certifying agencies, Certified Organic, Inc. (COI) and Guaranteed Organic Certification Agency (GOCA).

USDA says COI failed to

  • Communicate with hired inspectors about proper procedures or ensure they were adequately trained
  • Adhere to internal procedures according to their operational manual
  • Keep confidentiality agreements on file for all employees with knowledge about certification applicants or operations
  • Indicate on certificates the effective dates for organic certification,
  • Ensure adequate training for employees about the regulations
  • Provide clients with cost estimates including inspection fees
  • Clearly identify the company’s responsibility to pay for any required pre- or postharvest testing
  • Verify organic system plans against the actual practices of their certified operations

GOCA’s problems had to do with “persistent noncompliance,” including such things as “failure to require clients to use defined boundaries and border zones as required by the organic standards.”  This mayall  sound absurdly bureaucratic but it means the certifiers could be overlooking producers’ violations of organic standards.

You can track down the records of such things on the USDA’s website, and see the handful of other such enforcement actions at the National Organic Program’s site.

I’d say this is progress.  Organic producers are supposed to follow the rules of the National Organic Program, and to be inspected to make sure they do.  If the inspectors aren’t doing their job diligently, you won’t be able to tell whether the organic foods you buy are worth the premium prices.

This is a key point of a recent FoodNavigator story on the market for organics.  The U.S. industry is expected to go from $21.1 billion in 2010 to $36.8 billion in 2015.   How come?  Because of “the government’s monetary and regulatory support and increasing acceptance of organic food in the country.”

People will pay more for organics if they think the producer is credible.  Organics are about credibility.  That is why the USDA needs to fiercely enforce organic certification.   Doing so protects the industry.  The more of this sort of thing, the better.

  • Anthro

    Local is becoming more important to me than organic. If I meet the producer, see the farm, interact with the grower, and feel satisfied with what I see, then I don’t care if it’s 100% organic. A lot of the people I buy from can’t afford the certification process, but they are using standard methods that replenish the soil and don’t poison the groundwater. They will use some pesticide if it means saving a valuable crop, but they rarely need to.

    These are small family farms who work very hard to do a good job. They call their operations “sustainable” rather than organic, which is probably a more accurate word to begin with. Their cows are small in number and get outside, even in winter. They grow their own feed for the most part. Best of all, with renewed interest in subscription produce, they are able to keep their farms. When I see their milk at the co-op, there’s a tag with the cow’s name and it is the neatest thing to know that I have met that cow!

    Of course, I still look for organic and fair trade when I buy coffee, or chocolate or other stuff that doesn’t grow in this country, but I try to limit that to a small percentage of my diet.

    All that aside, I appreciate that the standards are being enforced. There have been reports of some pretty sad abuses, especially in the dairy market. I think I’d be vegan if I couldn’t visit the source of my dairy.

  • Steve Gilman]

    I’d say go for local AND organic if you get the chance. Thanks to the revamped National Organic Program

  • Steve Gilman

    (I’m having formatting problems on this website comment line)….
    As I was saying… thanks to the revamped National Organic Program (NOP) under the Obama Administration, the assurance of organic integrity is back up at the top of the list — and for consumers, Organic remains the Gold Standard of farm certifications.

    And while Local is a critical component of sustainable agriculture — there’s still a host of decidedly non-locally-produced toxic inputs, from chemical fertilizers to herbicides and pesticides that are regularly used in production (especially on dairy farms) that are totally disallowed in organic production.

    Finally, thanks to a Cost-Share provision in the Farm Bill, Certified Organic farmers certification costs are well supported by ongoing programs — making certification an affordable option for farmers and assuring customers a supply of authentic organic food in the marketplace.

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  • tamarque

    I would like to add to the eat local and sustainable a couple of points:
    1. organic practices are of utmost importance to me. local is not enough as many small farms used chemicals.
    2. remember to ask about GM product. many farms, even organic ones, use fertilizer from animals fed GM corn. they also feed GM corn/soy to chickens and other animals sold for food. the USDA allows this under the organic label–so buyer beware.
    3. ALWAYS ask for organic even when you know a farm isn’t. farmer are no different than any other business. if they see a market they will respond to it. i have called any number of farms and product mftrs and told them i would no longer be a customer if they continued with toxic practices.

  • Anthro

    @ Steve Gilman

    Good points, but I know my producers and they satisfy my standards as I tried to make clear in my post. Also, I would much prefer to support a local family who may not be 100% organic, than support what is fast becoming “Big Organic” which is guilty of the same economic practices as “Big Ag”.

    The farm that produces my dairy sells organic and “regular” products. The pastures are side by side and are treated very similarly, but only the organic one is 100% and certified, so the milk costs a lot more. I buy the regular because the important thing to me is that the cows are IN THE PASTURE, not confined to stalls in the barn.

    My motive when buying organic is to get better care of the land, better economic sustainability of smaller farms, and better treatment of animals. There is no evidence that organically grown food is better for humans.


    You make the (unsupported) assumption that there is something inherently bad about GM. While I abhor many of the practices of companies such as Monsanto, I do not have a problem with the scientific practice of improving plants with biotechnology methods. I support labeling of such, but I am disappointed that so many people fail to note the difference between the technology and how the technology is used by corporations. There simply is no scientific evidence of harm to humans from the consumption of GM foods.

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