USDA published a final rule to strengthen oversight on products that can bear the “USDA Organic” seal in an effort to reinforce a system that had been exploited to allow products that were not truly organic to slip through the cracks. The rule takes effect on March 19, 2024.
The 282-page rule requires more certification and training for people and businesses that deal with organic food worldwide, including importers, brokers and traders. It mandates more import certificates for organic products entering the country, gives the National Organic Program more oversight to take action against certifiers, and requires more unannounced inspections with more stringent requirements for organic operations. There are also new documentation requirements for containers that ship organic products, as well as certification and data reporting requirements.
Massive fraud in the USDA Organic certification was first exposed by The Washington Post in 2017, with reports on imported conventionally grown crops that became labeled as organic when they arrived in the United States. This rule is intended to tighten the weaknesses found in the program.
Once seen as a paragon for food grown naturally, The Washington Post’s reporting in 2017 — and the subsequent Inspector General’s report finding widespread problems in organic enforcement at ports — showed there were many holes in the USDA Organic Program.
This rule, which was years in the making, seeks to plug all of those holes through increased oversight, documentation and training. Some of these policies were mandated by Congress through the 2018 Farm Bill, while others were recommended by the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory board made up of people in the organic community.
“Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA organic seal is a key part of the USDA Food Systems Transformation initiative,” Jenny Lester Moffitt, Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, said in a written statement. “The Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule is the biggest update to the organic regulations since the original Act in 1990, providing a significant increase in oversight and enforcement authority to reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production. This success is another demonstration that USDA fully stands behind the organic brand.”
Supporters of the organic sector were encouraged by the final rule. The Organic Trade Association released a statement calling the final rule a “major accomplishment.”
“The rule closes gaps in current organic regulations and builds consistent certification practices to prevent fraud and improve the transparency and traceability of organic products,” the statement says. “Fraud in the organic system – wherever it occurs – harms the entire organic sector and shakes the trust of consumers in organic.”
This rule should go a long way to restoring the integrity of the “USDA Organic” seal, but it’s unclear how that will translate to sales and prominence of the sector. While organic sales have increased every year for the last decade, the Organic Trade Association’s 2022 Organic Industry Survey showed that 2021 posted the smallest increase yet: just 2% total year-over-year growth.
The reasons behind the growth slowdown are many, and don’t necessarily have much to do with consumer trust in the organic seal. The beginnings of a slower economy and climbing consumer prices were also major concerns. After a year of much higher inflation — including a 11.8% increase in food at home prices year-over-year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ December report — the impact of higher prices may take their toll on the organic sector.
Even if consumers can trust the products, as things stand now they may not want to spend more money on ones that are organic certified. However, since the final rule’s implementation date is more than a year from now, the economy and consumer priorities may shift, making integrity and trust more of a deciding factor at the grocery store.