Insights by Goldie
Restarting organic standards?

Sound Consumer | May 2010

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

In the beginning

The official organic advisory body created in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act is the 15-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB’s role is to provide information and advice on organic issues to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

During my term on the NOSB as a consumer representative from 2002 to 2006, I learned a lot — mostly that a peek behind the curtain at Oz isn’t necessarily what one imagines or hopes for!

Congress had vested the NOSB with considerably more authority and a more extensive workload than is typical for other unpaid citizen boards.

This appeared to rankle certain USDA career staff during my time there, especially the deputy administrator and National Organic Program (NOP) manager. The latter’s volatile personality and resentful attitude frequently undermined NOSB authority and derailed NOSB actions and recommendations.

Ironically, the same staff was key to supporting the NOSB’s performance of responsibilities. Their lack of professional respect and inadequate support for NOSB work was a serious disservice to all organic stakeholders and the public.

The Bush administration was not supportive of the NOP and chronically underfunded the program — contributing to serious understaffing, training, poor morale and lax management. Years of increasingly overburdening staff with an expanding workload compounded the problems, ironically worsened by the rapid growth of the organic industry.

A new era

The Obama administration promised to bring healthy changes in agriculture, yet the appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture raised concerns, due to his ties to biotech and industrial interests. Hope for meaningful change, however, was revived with the appointment of Dr. Kathleen Merrigan to serve as Vilsack’s deputy administrator, overseeing the NOP.

Merrigan had been director of a respected agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University and her organic credentials included authoring the Organic Food Production Act. She also served on the NOSB from 1995 to 1999 and spent two years as director of the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service, concentrating on launching the national organic standards, which took effect in 2001.

Merrigan is regarded as a brilliant choice to be Vilsack’s deputy and she rolled in and began to clean up the debris at the NOP.

Merrigan soon announced that an “in-depth audit” of the entire NOP was being conducted by the federal Office of the Inspector General (OIG). She followed up with a surprising disclosure that the USDA was seeking an outside, independent audit from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a division of the Department of Commerce.

Many organic stakeholders, especially the National Organic Coalition, had called for this type of audit for some time out of concern that organic stakeholders — and the public — must have strong confidence in the organic standards. The USDA obviously agreed.

The NIST report is expected to be rigorous, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses of the NOP’s regulatory process and of more than 100 organic certification bodies — both national and international. NIST is known for airtight standards and it’s likely that many specifics will be noted for ushering in better training and oversight, up and down the system.

OIG, meanwhile, delivered its report in March with recommendations to USDA officials. A new NOP director, Miles McEvoy, had taken over just a few months before after resigning his 20-year post as Washington state’s organic program manager. McEvoy was Merrigan’s choice, knowing his exceptionally extensive background and impeccable reputation.

McEvoy soon declared “an age of enforcement” (see Organics in 2010: Age of Enforcement, February 2010 Sound Consumer) — an apt term, since many of the 14 recommendations made by OIG (which McEvoy promptly accepted and agreed with) reflect the previous lack of adequate or timely enforcement of serious regulatory breaches.

Some of OIG’s recommendations to the NOP were:

  • strengthen internal enforcement procedures to determine what actions should be imposed on program violators — including civil penalties — and to issue appropriate actions
  • timely resolve and track all complaints, from receipt through disposition
  • implement a plan for achieving full oversight and enforcement by the California State Organic Program, obtaining an opinion on residue testing and establishing a means to conduct annual evaluations of all accreditation processes
  • implement proper supervision for foreign organic certifiers.

I understand that the ink on the report was barely dry when McEvoy took a number of actions, levied penalties, and cancelled the certification status of certain facilities operating illegally. Many problems had dragged on for years — but no more!

More about: agriculture, NOP, NOSB, organic food, USDA

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