Did USDA audits on organic certifiers find fraud or simple mistakes?

A report released by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) of its five-year audit of accredited organic certification firms showed that 14 certifiers had their accreditation renewed while 14 others must correct “non-compliances” before being granted renewal. Does the report indicate that some organic certifiers are lax in their commitment to organic standards or are they just missing minor details needed to renew certification?

In the report, the NOP said it was not taking any “adverse action” against certifiers who must correct the non-compliances and pass a second audit within one year. The report stated, “These accredited certifying agents (ACAs) have outstanding issues or proposed corrective actions that NOP has determined warrant a subsequent audit before renewal can be granted.”

However, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) says the report shows that the USDA is admitting that organic fraud is increasing. “It is clear that there are numerous violations of organic standards taking place in the US and across the world,” stated an OCA press release.

Fraud or honest mistakes?
Below are a few examples of the non-compliances found in the NOP audits:

  • The Maryland Department of Agriculture issued Transitional Organic Certificates to a client whose land was transitioning to organic. The NOP responded by saying that it doesn’t certify transitional land.
  • Hawaii Organic Farmers did not verify all aspects of a client’s organic system plant as required by the NOP. Specifically, they didn’t verify that product labels were accurate, didn’t verify product ingredients, didn’t complete an audit trail, and didn’t review cleaning or sanitizing procedures, among others.
  • A client of Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association (OEFFA) wrongly labeled an organic cheese product. The ingredient list states, “OEFFA Certified Milk, cheese cultures, plant enzymes.” However, OEFFA did not certify all the milk used in the cheese. In addition, the cheese, which is 95% organic, could have been labeled organic, but the label implies that the product is “made with” organic ingredients.
  • Marin Organic Certified Agriculture was cited for not having production records from an organic poultry producer.

Common non-compliances included not ensuring that a client’s organic system plan was complete and not giving a client an estimate of the certifications costs. OEFFA and Minnesota Crop Improvement Association were cited for specifying additional requirements for certification not required by the NOP.

Many of the non-compliances cited by the NOP were corrected by the certifiers.

First round of 5-year audits
These were the first of the five-year audits conducted on all 96 USDA-accredited certification agencies (ACAs). Forty-four US ACAs were accredited by the NOP in 2002, and these are the first to be audited. Of these, 14 had their accreditation renewed, including CCOF, Nutri-Clean, Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, Maharishi Vedic Organic Agriculture Institute, NOFA-NY, and Washington State Department of Agriculture, among others. Ten US ACAs must correct non-compliance issues: Marin County, Hawaii Organic Farmers Association, Idaho State Department of Agriculture, Indiana Certified Organic, Maryland Department of Agriculture, Baystate Organic Certifiers, Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association, Minnesota Crop Improvement Association, International Certification Services, and Global Organic Alliance. Another 20 ACAs, including Quality Assurance International, Organic Crop Improvement Association, and Oregon Tilth, are listed as “renewal ongoing.”

Four non-US ACAs were also cited for non-compliances: OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada, BCS-Oeko Garantie GmbH, and Ecocert S.A., and IMO. OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada was mainly missing forms, such as resumes and conflict of interest forms. The other three certifiers had non-compliances identified during on-site audits conducted in other countries, including China. All four certifiers took measures to correct the non-compliances.

Non-compliances associated with organic products imported from China raise red flags because there have been doubts about the integrity of China’s organic production. A certified organic powdered ginger product imported from China and sold in Whole Foods stores was recently found to have trace amounts of aldicarb, a toxic pesticide.

Why publish when not complete?
Jim Riddle, organic agriculture coordinator at the University of Minnesota and former chair of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), questions why the NOP would release a report when the audits are not finished. “It’s strange to me that the USDA has published information about audits that are still in process,” he says. “Such a report could be easily misleading or misinterpreted.”

Riddle says the partially completed report hurts the certifiers who must correct non-compliances. “For the certifiers identified as under a cloud of suspicion, it could harm their business.”

Riddle concedes that passing such an audit is challenging. “It’s very rare that all the details (required of the certifier), which are many, are in order,” he says
Overall, Riddle thinks the NOP audits are a good thing. “It is reassuring that the USDA is doing a much more thorough job and being more professional,” he says.

Peer review panel needed
Both Riddle and OCA emphasize that a peer review panel, which was required by law in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, should be implemented by the USDA. Such a panel would be comprised of organic industry members with certification expertise. “Peer review would oversee the accreditation process and make sure that NOP is following the rules,” Riddle says.

OCA was more emphatic. “It’s time for the USDA to stop dragging their heels and begin the public process to set up an organic community ‘Peer Review Panel,’ so can we can start policing organic standards ourselves.”

To view the NOP’s audit report, visit http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report September 2008.