Managing Conflicts of Interest in the National Organic Program

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

by Anne Ross, JD
Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: AdobeStock

Many federal and state laws, professional bodies, and associations establish policies that recognize conflicts of interest and take steps to mitigate those conflicts.

Federal employees in the executive branch of government are restricted from performing certain post-employment activities, like advising foreign political governments and parties. Similarly, there are restrictions on former congressional members, imposing “cooling off” periods before they can lobby Congress.

Lawyers are governed by strict rules of professional conduct specifically addressing potential conflicts of interest. Lawyers must obtain consent from a former client before representing a new client in matters that are averse to the interests of former clients.

The pharmaceutical and medical device industries are required to disclose consultancy relationships with physicians to avoid the appearance that medical entrepreneurship is prioritized over research or patient care.

The National Organic Program (NOP) should enact similar measures to engender confidence in the organic sector.

Consider scenario A: An individual is employed by a USDA accredited certifier. The individual resigns her employment with the certifier and accepts employment with a certified operation to head that operation’s organic division. The operation happens to be certified by the certifier that previously employed the operation’s new organic manager.

Consider scenario B: A high-level administrator at the NOP resigns from his employment and enters
into a lucrative consultancy agreement with a certifier. The NOP is responsible for accrediting and overseeing the performance of all certifiers. In exchange for consultancy fees, the former administrator offers to talk to some of his former subordinates at the NOP, attempting to resolve conflicts.

What do these scenarios have in common? They both present situations where an individual may find him or herself with competing interests. These competing interests, commonly referred to as conflicts of interest, can create a perception of bias. Worse yet, if left unmanaged, conflict of interests can provide fertile ground for fraud.

When the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) asked for public comment on factors to assess certifier risk for fraudulent conduct, Cornucopia requested that it adopt similar measures and specifically address the revolving door in these employment situations.

Certifiers have a higher risk for fraudulent conduct if the certifier provides services to an operation that employs a former member of the certifier’s staff, or the certifier hires an individual who was previously employed by an operation it certifies. Certifiers are also at a higher risk for fraudulent conduct if the certifier engages a former NOP employee as a consultant, board member, advisor, or employee.

One way to mitigate these risks is to require certifiers to disclose to the NOP these employment relationships and for the NOP to make this information publicly available. The NOP should also require that the former NOP employee, certifier, and certified entity disclose the nature of the relationship (including the disclosure of financial interests) between former NOP employees, certifiers, and/or certified entities.

Managing these potential conflicts of interest through required disclosures engenders confidence in the authenticity of organic food production. It’s the transparency within a system that reveals its ultimate truth, without which there cannot be trust.

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