Industry Watchdog Calls for Independent Investigation of USDA’s National Organic ProgramDecember 11th, 2016
Asserts the Will of Congress/Organic Law is Being Violated
In a letter to the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, The Cornucopia Institute has requested an independent audit of the National Organic Program (NOP), charging a multiplicity of illegal actions and inactions. The Wisconsin-based farm policy research group alleges that the National Organic Program has failed to enforce the laws governing organic agriculture, thereby allowing multinational corporate agribusinesses to squeeze out family-scale farmers, compromising the integrity of the organic label.
If the independent Inspector General responds to Cornucopia’s request, this will not be the first audit that they have performed at the request of the watchdog group. Past audits have been highly critical of the National Organic Program’s accreditation program overseeing organic certification.
“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.”
Cornucopia’s letter cites a number of serious enforcement violations including: allowing soil-less hydroponic/container growing, which substitutes liquid fertilizers for careful stewardship of soil; allowing documented cases of “willful” violations on factory dairies confining livestock instead of grazing; and allowing as many as 200,000 “organic” chickens to be kept in single buildings without outdoor access. [Note: “willful” was the descriptor used by the USDA investigators when adjudicating allegations of violations and fraud lodged by The Cornucopia Institute.]
“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.
Cornucopia’s letter to the Inspector General also accuses the USDA of undermining the carefully crafted rulemaking structure that Congress devised to insulate organic policymaking from undue influence by corporate lobbyists. This includes undermining the congressional mandate that all non-organic and synthetic materials, approved for use in organics, must “Sunset” every five years. Unilaterally changing the Sunset review and voting process by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) elicited a strong rebuke by one of the organic law’s original authors, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
In addition to 10 FOIA lawsuits currently being adjudicated in federal court, the National Organic Program is embroiled in three other lawsuits, two of which pertain to undermining the authority of the NOSB, including undermining Sunset, and one for failing to enforce the law pertaining to farm inputs contaminated with toxic pesticides.
In making their case that the USDA has systemically looked the other way when gross violations are apparent, Cornucopia cites a series of complaints they filed in 2014 against 14 giant dairies and egg production facilities. 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 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.
“We resubmitted these complaints 14 months ago, this time against the certifiers,” stated Marie Burcham, a livestock specialist and attorney on Cornucopia staff. “Based on the official guidance for adjudicating formal complaints, the USDA is obligated to investigate complaints against certifiers. So far, the USDA has failed in this obligation.”
“When the organic farming movement was commercialized in earnest, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, stakeholders petitioned Congress for strict regulations to maintain high integrity in organic agriculture,” stated Kevin Engelbert, an organic dairy farmer from Nichols, New York. “The exponential increase in ‘organic’ milk coming from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in the desert west, many allegedly cheating, continues to push down pricing and jeopardize the livelihoods of hard-working farm families across the country.”
Engelbert, a former member of the National Organic Standards Board, is recognized as the first certified organic dairy farmer in the U.S.
Cornucopia’s request to the Office of the Inspector General also asked them to look into financial mismanagement at the NOP.
The group charges that the NOP has illegally withheld documents from the public and organic stakeholders that would allow them to evaluate the job performance of NOP management and staff. Furthermore, Cornucopia accuses the NOP of squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars paying for multiple staff to review documents and USDA in-house legal counsel to fight the release of this public information.
“If the NOP was truly transparent and posted enforcement information on their website, none of these expenses would be necessary, and the public would be better informed,” stated Jason Cole, a Cornucopia researcher who manages the organization’s FOIA requests.
Former NOSB board chair, Dr. Barry Flamm, who also sits on The Cornucopia Institute’s board of directors, articulated his disappointment in the program by saying, “The best and brightest in the organic movement have volunteered their time over the past two decades to help craft a program that should assure farmers a level, competitive playing field and consumers the highest quality food. Instead we have USDA management abdicating their legal responsibilities and listening to the lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association and their corporate members, instead of the public who truly own the organic label.”
In November The Cornucopia Institute filed formal legal complaints against Driscoll’s and Wholesum Family Farms, Inc., requesting an investigation in the organic certification of their hydroponic operations in the U.S. The group argues that soil-less hydroponic facilities cannot be certified organic, as federal law and federal regulations require management and nurturing of soil fertility as a cornerstone of organic agriculture. Hydroponic growers generally produce crops indoors, under artificial lighting, while dousing plant roots with liquid fertilizer that can never begin to duplicate the biological complexity of fertile soil.
The NOP has historically condoned numerous examples of material conflicts of interest on the National Organic Standards Board. Such conflicts used to be negotiated among board members; they are now reviewed in secret by NOP staff.
After red-flagging these conflicts prior to the November 2016 NOSB meeting in St. Louis, USDA NOP staff ignored Cornucopia’s concerns and allowed a Driscoll’s employee (possibly the largest hydroponic producer in the country) to engage in the debate and vote on matters related to hydroponics.
Two other board members also had seeming conflicts as well. One is compensated by organic certifier CCOF for her time on the board, with CCOF certifying Driscoll’s and approximately 130 other hydroponic operations. And the newly hired CEO of Quality Assurance International (QAI), who chaired the NOSB meeting, is working for another major certifier of allegedly illegal hydroponic operations.
The Driscoll’s employee on the NOSB, Carmela Beck, was named “Member of the Year” by the powerful corporate lobby group, the Organic Trade Association. CCOF is one of the largest donors to the Organic Trade Association.
Besides ignoring the complaints Cornucopia has filed on factory-farm violations, FOIA documents released to Cornucopia illustrate how USDA investigators found two giant livestock factories, Aurora Organic Dairy (Colorado/Texas) and Shamrock Farms (Arizona), in “willful” violation of organic standards, yet the USDA allowed them to continue doing business with the organic label without a fine.
In the case of the Aurora investigation, career civil servants at the USDA also suggested that Aurora’s certifier, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, be sanctioned, but no enforcement action was taken.
In the Shamrock matter, USDA investigators found that Quality Assurance International (QAI) had certified the operation before they even had dairy cows on the farm. USDA documents also reveal that QAI’s certification of the desert-based “factory farm,” milking over 10,000 conventional and organic cows, included a woefully inadequate amount of pasture that was planted in annual cultivars that burned up in the desert heat.
Documents released by the USDA indicate that during one calendar year, Shamrock was only able to graze their cattle for 84 days in the scorching desert sun. Current organic regulations require grazing during the entire season with a minimum of 120 days.
USDA investigators found all of Cornucopia’s charges against Shamrock Farms meritorious. They further indicated that the Arizona climate, and the dairy’s management, failed to qualify the giant operation for organic certification.
However, FOIA documents indicate no enforcement action was taken against Shamrock’s certifier QAI, a certifier implicated in a number of past improprieties as well.
Cornucopia officials said that they hoped the Office of Inspector General would open a formal investigation into their charges prior to the end of the Obama administration. “We would like to see an investigation on the record prior to when the new administration takes over at the USDA,” said Kastel. However, Kastel said regardless of the actions the OIG takes at this point in time, Cornucopia intends to reinstitute a dialogue with the office, in addition to the new Secretary of Agriculture and other political appointees, after the Trump administration takes over at the agency.