Public-private partnership between organic and USDA needs repair

Organic is an entirely unique public-private partnership, a voluntary program overseen by third-party private certifiers with the added force of government oversight that has created the most rigorous and transparent set of food standards in the world. Organic farmers and businesses are one of the few industries that want the government to ensure that standards and regulations governing them are robust and stringent. But what happens when the government fails to uphold its end of the bargain?

When Congress created the National Organic Program (NOP) housed under USDA nearly 30 years ago, the industry envisioned a process by which public and private stakeholders would work together via the National Organic Standards Board to make recommendations to USDA on advancing and developing the organic standards. As the organic industry grew and matured and new innovations, agricultural production systems and technologies emerged along with rapidly changing consumer demands, the industry would be able to evolve the standards and ensure that the organic label would continuously improve.

The USDA Organic label is highly trusted by over 75% of U.S. families, creating a market worth over $52 billion in annual sales.

The organic stakeholder landscape constitutes a passionate, opinionated and sometimes rowdy community but in the past decade, they have come together via the National Organic Standards Board to a consensus on 20 recommendations to advance the organic standards. These recommendations include strengthening organic seed usage, animal welfare standards, and creating organic production standards for aquaculture, pet food, personal care products and greenhouses. USDA has not issued a rule or regulation to implement a single one of these recommendations. Without the force of law, the organic label means nothing.

Although the government moves notoriously slow, the failure of government to keep pace with a voluntary, industry-driven program such as organic is abysmal. Congress should repair the public-private partnership between organic and USDA to bring accountability to the program.

The federal rulemaking process is cumbersome and time consuming; it’s not built for a voluntary regulatory program like organic. It should not take USDA over a decade to make a simple clarification or change to ensure consistent enforcement of the organic standards. The uniqueness of the organic program requires a different approach than how the government views mandatory regulations.

Organic should not be subject to the same bureaucratic foot dragging that can stifle forward movement. This is why the Organic Trade Association is working with Congress on legislation to add transparency and accountability to the federal regulatory process for organic, and require USDA to act in a timely and transparent manner when the industry comes together to make recommendations to advance the organic standards. The future of organic depends on fixing this broken process. //