USDA's National Organic Program Operating Illegally, Says Industry Watchdog Group

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USDA's National Organic Program Operating Illegally, Says Industry Watchdog Group

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Organic industry watchdog group, The Cornucopia Institute, has requested the USDA’s Office of Inspector General conduct an independent audit of the National Organic Program (NOP), over what the group alleges are numerous cases of illegal actions and inactions by the agency on laws governing organic agriculture.

The Cornucopia Institute says the NOP’s failure to enforce organic agriculture laws has made it easy for large-scale multinational corporate agribusinesses “to squeeze out family-scale farmers, compromising the integrity of the organic label,” the group said in a statement.

“By failing to vigorously enforce the organic standards, USDA political appointees and NOP management have betrayed ethical family farmers and businesses, along with consumer trust,” stated Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia’s codirector. “The NOP has ceded control of organic rulemaking and enforcement to lobbyists from the nation’s most powerful agribusinesses.”

The Cornucopia Institute points out several violations including the permission of the USDA organic label on soil-less hydroponic/container grown products. Organic certification is largely based on soil conditions, and growing without soil, the case in hydroponic growing set-ups, goes against the very definition of the organic label.

The group also points to what it calls numerous cases of “willful” violations of organic regulations by dairy farms that confine the animals indoors instead of permitting grazing. Additionally, The Cornucopia Institute points to at least one case of a certified organic chicken farm keeping as many as 200,000 birds confined indoors without any outdoor access.

“We have filed a series of lawsuits this year concerning the NOP's abuse of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). These have forced the USDA to turn over documents that illustrate how the NOP views some giant corporate farms and the largest organic certifiers as ‘too big to fail’ even after investigators found them in 'willful' violation of the law,” Kastel noted.

The group is also accusing the USDA of “undermining the carefully crafted rulemaking structure that Congress devised to insulate organic policymaking from undue influence by corporate lobbyists.”

This complaint also alleges that the USDA has declined to observe the congressional mandate on Sunset regulations, a process that happens every five years for any non-organic and synthetic materials approved for use in organics for which there is no viable organic substitute.

The USDA is currently engaged in several lawsuits, two of which also relate to the agency’s failure to observe the National Organic Standards Board recommendations.

The Cornucopia Institute points to numerous complaints it filed with the USDA in 2014 against 14 large-scale dairy and egg producers.

“Evidence supporting these complaints includes aerial photographs showing few, if any, cattle grazing and no chickens outdoors, in clear violation of the organic standards,” the group explains. “The USDA initially refused to investigate these complaints, instead relying on certifiers’ assurances, even though some of these certifiers have been proven to be co-conspirators or incompetent in past violation cases.”

The group also claims that the NOP has illegally withheld documents from the public, making it difficult to effectively evaluate the program’s performance. Cornucopia also notes that the NOP misused funds to review and fight the release of documents that the group says should be made public.

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