Large Certifiers, the USDA, and Industry Lobbyists Collude

[This article was previously published in the fall issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Mark A. Kastel,
Codirector at The Cornucopia Institute

Mark A. Kastel

When I began producing organic food, certification was voluntary. The USDA was years away from being involved.

Farmers formed our own certification groups because we wanted to assure the credibility of organic labeling claims. We wanted to grow the organic farming movement as both an economic justice vehicle for family-scale farmers and as a way to have a positive impact on society, human health, and the environment.

The stakeholders were divided on asking Congress to pass legislation setting minimum standards. Proponents of the standards, including myself, were suffering the consequences of commercial interests undercutting foundational organic standards, primarily in California.

The certification groups formed prior to the USDA’s involvement were feuding amongst each other on minor differences in standards, preventing the certification of multi-ingredient products to spur the commercial growth of organics.

As the saying goes, “Be careful what you ask for, because you might actually get it.”

Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), like many other regulatory agencies in Washington, has become an ally of corporate agribusiness.

Instead of fulfilling the congressional mandate to protect ethical industry participants from unfair competition, and consumers from fraud, the NOP staff is all too pleased to help the lobbyists funding the federal campaigns of their bosses.

This corporate influence is happening despite the safeguards we convinced Congress to build into the system, including a broad, independent expert body to oversee regulations, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).

Numerous violations of the law by the USDA have undercut the intended independence of the National Organic Program.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of the NOP is the accreditation of the 80 certifiers, in the U.S. and internationally, responsible for inspecting and auditing over 37,000 farms and their operations within the $40 billion industry. This is obviously no small task.

In addition to experts at The Cornucopia Institute, the Office of Inspector General at the USDA has also been critical of how the NOP is doing their job in this regard. And it’s important.

Since farmers and corporations pay certifiers, their independence has to be carefully supervised to overcome the inherent economic conflict of interest.

However, NOP Director Miles McEvoy is a former certifier himself and a big cheerleader for certifiers in general. Even after major scandals have broken, such as those profiled in The Washington Post, detailing massive fraudulent imports and illegal “organic” factory dairies, Mr. McEvoy has coached the certifiers on damage control. This is unacceptable from what should be a hard-nosed regulator, scrupulously overseeing the industry.

And how about the certifiers themselves? They should be like the referees in a hockey game, assuring that both teams abide by the rules. Instead, they are cheerleaders for their paying “clients.”

For example, in a recent response to The Post’s damaging import fraud investigation, CCOF Certification Services, LLC, the largest accredited certifying agency, stated that they “represented nearly 3,000 certified organic members in 42 states.”

“Represents” is a pretty apt descriptor. After all, CCOF staff show up at NOSB meetings lobbying for synthetic materials, hydroponics, and other issues on behalf of their 3,000 customers. They are also listed as one of the largest donors to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the powerful industry lobby group.

None of that sounds like an independent arbitrator. Instead, it sounds like a trade organization representing commercial interests. If this seems like a cozy relationship that smells rotten, please allow me to further connect some of the dots.

Hydroponics: Growing Without Soil in Industrial Settings

Even though current organic regulations require careful stewardship of soil as a prerequisite for certification, the USDA/NOP quietly allowed CCOF to certify Driscoll’s, the largest berry producer in the United States, and over 100 other entities, for hydroponics/container growing. This was in spite of the fact that the NOSB had already clearly stated that hydroponic production does not qualify as organic. However, in a big favor to corporate interests, the NOP has never implemented the tougher NOSB recommendations.

Who did the USDA (illegally) appoint to the NOSB to sit in a seat designated by Congress for someone who “owns or operates an organic farm?” An employee of Driscoll’s (Driscoll’s does not even grow berries; they contract with independent farmers).

This NOSB member did such a nice job carrying the water for the corporate lobbyists that she was named the 2016 OTA member of the year (see the NOSB voting scorecard under the projects tab on Cornucopia’s website).

Organic Livestock Factories

CCOF, Quality Assurance International (QAI), and Oregon Tilth are the largest certifiers and are all happy to jump on the factory farm bandwagon regardless of well-documented violations of organic law. All are cozy members of the OTA industry lobby.

It’s not surprising that a former QAI official, in a book on organics, referred to Cornucopia as “The Organic Taliban.” I don’t think they like us.

What started out as a collaborative effort, with the USDA, certifiers, and farm organizations all working together, has evolved into a rather adversarial relationship.

Unprecedented Betrayal of the NOSB

Recently, the USDA rejected the NOSB’s unanimous vote to remove three non-organic items from the List of Approved Substances (i.e., whey protein concentrate, Turkish bay leaf, and inulin-oligofructose).

After a full year of debate and deliberation, including public testimony, only the OTA recommended overriding the NOSB vote. And the powerful lobbyists got their whey. Organic dairy farmers and processors, who can produce certified organic whey, lose, as do consumers who have their organic products polluted with non-organic ingredients.

There are some wonderful certifiers that are true to the mission. They include the affiliates of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, OneCert, and the Organic Crop Improvement Association. Going forward, we will be comprehensively identifying the best certifiers.

Until We Win the Big Fight at the USDA: Here’s How to Protect Your Family and Organic Farmers

Use the organic brand scorecards (e.g., dairy, eggs, soy foods, pet food, etc.) on Cornucopia’s website to choose the highest-integrity products.

Shop as local as possible at your member-owned cooperative, farmers market, or CSA. Know your farmers. Choose local and organic. Our research shows that there are virtually no integrity problems at that level—it’s voluntary because the farmers involved truly believe. [Use our new DIY Certification Guide to evaluate non-certified options.]

In addition to the brands identified on the Cornucopia scorecards, there are still high integrity, larger companies owned by the visionary founders. These include Eden Foods, Nature’s Path, and Dr. Bronner’s. Many of the other leading brands are now corporately owned.

Choose well, eat well, and sleep well. We all make a difference when investing time in organic brand research and spending our dollars wisely.

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