INSIDE ORGANIC: USDA’s Surprising Decision to Order a Rigorous Outside Audit of Its Organic Accreditation Program Is a Huge Step Forward (Sept/Oct 09)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · January, 2007

After seven long years of stonewalling to block independent review and oversight of its troubled organic program, it looks like the U.S. Department of Agriculture may have its hands full in the coming year with not one, but two, organic program audits.

A surprising decision by USDA to agree to an independent outside audit of its organic accreditation program by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was disclosed in July. Appropriations committees in both houses of Congress pressed ahead at the same time to provide $500,000 to USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) to audit the operations of the National Organic Program (NOP).

USDA’s NIST audit decision was made public in a letter from Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to the National Organic Coalition (NOC). The coalition proposed the NIST audit to the Obama Administration’s transition team in December and a NOC delegation followed up with a meeting with Merrigan in June. NOC, a coalition of organizations including Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, suggested the NIST review would fix USDA’s “flawed” organic accreditation program and satisfy the law’s controversial Peer Review Panel requirement at the same time.

Organic producers understand why audits are important. Their audits are the annual inspections used to verify their compliance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). Producers also may be told to improve their systems as a condition of continuing their organic certification. The NIST audit would put the NOP under a similar system of annual surveillance and continuous improvement and help solve inconsistency and other implementation problems.

Merrigan’s letter to NOC stated that applying for and receiving NIST recognition will support the NOP’s credentials as an accreditation program and satisfy the organic law’s peer review requirements. “We understand the value of this step,” her letter said, “as we continue working to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to building the organic community’s trust in the program.”

Why Peer Review Is a Big Deal

Why did Merrigan cite the need to meet the organic law’s peer review requirement and why is peer review still such a contentious issue? The reason is that organic farmers and others involved in shaping the 1990 organic law felt strongly that USDA could never be trusted to operate an organic program without public oversight.

They insisted, as a result, that the law include both the Peer Review Panel requirement and the National Organic Standards Board’s statutory authority over the national list of allowed and prohibited substances.

The requirements for peer review and USDA’s refusal to fully implement them despite Congressional prodding have been a source of contention for years. Senate report language in USDA appropriations bills in each of the last five years have called on USDA to establish the review panel called for in the 1990 law. This language appears again in the recently approved Senate version.

Why is the new NIST audit important to organic farmers and to the consumers who purchase organic food? One reason is the NOP accredits 98 certification bodies worldwide, making integrity issues crucial to consumer acceptance and to farmers needing assurance that organic soybeans and other competing imports meet U.S. organic standards. The list of NOP-accredited certification bodies includes 54 U.S.-based certifiers, including several that certify farms and processors overseas, and 44 foreign certifiers based in more than 20 countries. Lax oversight of certification agencies has become a pressing organic integrity issue for consumers aware of problems with food imports from China and other countries.

The NIST audit is important because it would require USDA’s accreditation program to have a quality manual that would clearly spell out procedures for dealing with certification and enforcement, require consistency in guidelines given to certification agencies and producers, provide continuous review of the manual, and provide oversight needed to make sure NOP personnel follow its requirements.

News Reports Undermine Consumer Confidence

The audit decision also may slow the growing number of national media reports critical of the NOP that organic farmers and others believe are undermining consumer confidence. USDA has been hit hard by stories reporting that organic standards have been relaxed and are unevenly applied, that it has failed to support the scientific analysis the NOSB needs to evaluate which substances and additives can be used in organic products, and that Washington influence peddlers working behind the scenes have been successful in getting the NOP to increase the number of substances and additives allowed.

The decision to seek NIST recognition also will put on hold the recent attempt by an NOSB committee to recommend an alternative peer review approach. The NOSB’s Compliance, Accreditation, and Certification Committee’s latest proposed approach would establish a special NOSB task force that would attempt to provide the kind of NOP oversight that the peer review process calls for. NOC urged the NOSB at the meeting to reject the committee’s task force approach and to seriously consider recommending the NIST approach instead.

The appropriations bills calling for providing the OIG with $500,000 to audit the operations of the NOP indicate that Congress has run out of patience with how the program is being run. The OIG funding was sponsored in the House by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and in the Senate by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and is expected to be in the USDA appropriations bill when it gets final approval later this year.

Holt’s House bill provision calls on the OIG “to determine whether the USDA organic certification program ensures that the most rigorous standards for certification are honored and to investigate whether non-organic substances inappropriately remain allowed in small amounts in USDA certified products after organic alternatives have been discovered.” This is a reference to the increase from 77 to 245 in the number of non-organic substances and additives now allowed in certified organic products.

Numerous Noncompliances in Previous Audits

The OIG audit presumably will be more comprehensive than an earlier audit that identified serious NOP operations problems. An additional audit of USDA’s organic accreditation program conducted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) six years ago turned up 21 noncompliances, including lack of a quality manual. Although both audits identified serious problems and made recommendations, neither the OIG nor ANSI had the authority to require USDA to make the corrections needed. .

The NOP at the time promised to implement the recommendations of the ANSI audit and bring the organic program into compliance. The NOP also expressed an interest in having an assessment of this kind on a regular basis but but there was no followup. Four years later Senate appropriators were still asking the NOP for “a detailed report to the Committee regarding progress in implementing these recommendations.”

The NIST audit, which will place the NOP under continuous outside surveillance and oversight, may be the most important organic policy development since the final rule went into effect in 2002. This rigorous audit, unlike the others, will require USDA to correct all the problems identified. It will force USDA to bring its organic accreditation program into conformity with international standards for management of accreditation programs for the first time and bring the NOP into compliance with the 1990 organic law.

The audit of USDA’s organic program, with NIST recognition as the hoped-for outcome, will get underway October 1, 2009 and is expected to take a year or more. USDA already has some NIST audit experience. The Audit, Review, and Compliance Branch of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service , which performs organic certifier audits, received NIST recognition in April for its ISO Guide 65 program. NIST recognition is for two years and the full audit process must be repeated each time it is renewed.

There is no reason why USDA should have anything less than a world class organic program. The NIST audit decision, the new Congressional commitment to shape up the NOP, and other changes USDA is making to support organic agriculture are important first steps. The challenge to organic farmers is to stay vigilant and keep the pressure on both USDA and Congress so the backsliding so common in Washington when attention lags will not undermine the progress being made.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service