by John Bobbe
Excerpted from Potential, Failures, and Pitfalls of the National Organic Program in Getting Control of Organic Grain Fraud, September 2019

Senator Tammy Baldwin (WI) along with Senator Jon Tester (MT), an organic farmer, successfully got the language of the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act of 2018 inserted into the signed bill (S2927). The bill not only gives USDA-NOP more funding but stipulates specifically what USDA-NOP must do to insure organic integrity throughout the supply chain, especially for imports. The following are some of the specific provisions:

  • Documentation of imported grain should include: “(i) the origin; (ii) the destination; (iii) the certifying agent issuing the national organic program certificate; (iv) the harmonized code, if a harmonized tariff code exists for the agricultural product; (v) the total weight; and (vi) the organic standard to which the agricultural product is certified.
  • Require the imported agricultural product to be accompanied by a complete and valid national organic program import certificate, which shall be available as an electronic record, including development of a system to track import certificates.
  • Tracking systems shall be modernized under requirements of the Farm Bill including full traceability.
  • Issue a report to Congress to be submitted annually with information regarding imports, amounts and country of origin.
  • As part of the accreditation of certifying agents, the NOP shall oversee any certifying agent operating in a foreign country including satellite offices.
  • Import fraud investigations: All parties conducting an active investigation (including certifying agents, state organic certification programs, and the National Organic Program) shall share confidential business information with Federal and State government officers and employees and certifying agents involved in the investigation as necessary to fully investigate and enforce potential violations of this title.
  • Establish expedited investigative procedures to review the accreditation of a certifying agent operating in a foreign country under any the circumstances such as revocations of a certifier by a foreign government, or import quantities suddenly rise in a specific country.
  • Collect data and share it with appropriate certifiers and others.
  • Set up a formal working relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and FDA to monitor imports and potential fraud.
  • Report the various actions taken regarding enforcement and number and types of actions taken by officials at various ports.
  • Provide data on fumigation and other potential violations of the Organic Food Production Act of imports.

The Bill provides additional funding to the NOP as follows; “(1) $15,000,000 for fiscal year 2018; “(2) $16,500,000 for fiscal year 2019; and increases funding through 2023 to $24,000,000.  It also provided a special one-time appropriation of $5,000,000 for modernization of trade tracking and data collection systems.

What has NOP done with this new authority and funding?

Farmers feel that an institutionalized culture within the NOP means nothing will be done, or it won’t be done in time.

The NOP was appropriated $5M to upgrade the USDA Organic Integrity Database.  No one disagrees that this needs to be done and that data should be entered in a timelier manner.  In the past, a $5M appropriation for the collection of organic data was spent for personnel unrelated to organic. This is a documented case of lip service.  It is hoped that after that fiasco, NOP gets this done right.

So often those inside the Washington D.C. Beltway sit at a desk, pull up numbers on a computer, and if things are approximate, call it good enough.  NOP would also like to shove off most of its investigative work on the certifiers and appears to only look at complaints if they have a shut tight case handed to them before acting.

In early 2019, NOP was touting again the number of certificate revocations.  According to the NOP, imports from the Black Sea Region were down.

However, industry data shows imports from this region were up 150%.  These imports are attributable primarily to one major company that exports from the region to a North American company that it owns.  The NOP was presented with this data including the type of grain, tonnage, and cargo owners.  The information also included ports of arrival in U.S.   The data came from a source in Europe, not from USDA.  The NOP has not publicly commented on the wide discrepancy.

Numerous cases make the point. Black Sea Region countries including Ukraine and Russia are under special rules as “high risk countries” for any shipments into the European Union.

In filing complaints about potentially fraudulent grain shipments originating in the Black Sea Region, especially Ukraine and Turkey, the amusing question asked of me as the one filing the complaint was, “What makes you think this shipment is suspicious?”  Shouldn’t the response have been, “NOP will investigate?” What doesn’t the NOP get about the rampant fraud from shipments in the region?

Upgrading the Organic Integrity Database is one of the easier parts to implementing the Farm Bill.  Most of the provisions require the NOP to take specific actions.  The actions that would help prevent organic farmers and their markets from being flooded with fraudulent grain has been put on the back burner until later in 2019.  Those provisions are going to require people to get off their chairs at USDA and do some actual on-the-ground investigative work.  This will probably take another 18 months or more while farmers bear the brunt of NOP’s no-hurry attitude.