WASHINGTON, DC, US — The US Department of Agriculture on July 8 issued an unofficial draft of the proposed rule for the National Organic Program; Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE), intended to strengthen organic control systems, improve organic import oversight, clarify organic certification standards and enhance supply chain traceability, all of which would contribute to increased transparency in the organic marketplace.

The SOE, in part, will require all parties involved in the trade of organic commodities to be certified by an organic certification agency and all organic imports to be electronically reported to and monitored by US Customs and Border Protection.

“These changes would mark a turning point in organic market transparency, the importance of which is difficult to overstate,” said Ryan Koory, director of economics at Silver Spring, Maryland,US-based Mercaris, the organic and non-GMO grain and dairy trading platform and data services provider. “In addition to strengthening organic regulations in general, the SOE offers to give significant teeth to the USDA’s ability to oversee US organic imports.”

In its draft report, the USDA said the new rules would amend USDA regulations to strengthen oversight and enforcement of the production, handling and sale of organic agricultural products.

“The proposed amendments are intended to protect integrity in the organic supply chain and build consumer and industry trust in the USDA organic label by strengthening organic control systems, improving farm-to-market traceability and providing robust enforcement of the USDA organic regulations,” the USDA said. “The proposed amendments will close gaps in the current regulations to build consistent certification practices to deter and detect organic fraud. The need for more consistent oversight to protect organic integrity is a product of the rapidly expanding organic market, increasingly complex organic supply chains and price premiums for organic products.”

US organic sector sales in 2019 totaled $55.1 billion, up 5% from 2018, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2020 organic industry survey. That included $50.1 billion in organic food, up 4.6% from 2018, and $5 billion in non-food organic products, up 9%. Organic food sales have doubled since 2011, compared to total food sales that have grown about 20% during the same time. Organic food accounted for about 6% of total food sales in 2019 compared with 3.5% in 2011, according to the OTA.

Because of that growth, many entities now involved in the organic market, both domestic and global, are not regulated by the USDA. Common areas cited as needing improved oversight and enforcement include certification of excluded handlers, organic imports, fraud prevention, trade arrangements and inspector qualifications.

“The absence of direct enforcement authority over some entities in the organic supply chain, in combination with price premiums for organic products, presents the opportunity and incentive for organic fraud, which has been discovered in the organic sector by both the (USDA’s) National Organic Program and organic stakeholders,” the USDA said.

The proposal lists three actions aimed at strengthening enforcement of USDA organic regulations through actions mandated by the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Those include reducing the types of uncertified entities in the organic supply chain that operate without USDA oversight, including importers, brokers and traders; requiring the use of NOP import certificates or equivalent for all organic products entering the United States; and clarifying the NOP’s authority to oversee certification activities, including the authority to act against an agent or office of a certifying agent.

Further, the proposal lists several discretionary actions that work in alignment with the above provisions, including: clarify the labeling of nonretail containers used to ship or store organic products; specify the minimum number of unannounced inspections of certified operations that must be conducted annually by accredited certifying agencies, and require that supply chain audits be completed during on-site inspections; require certifying agents to issue standardized certificates of organic operation generated from the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database and to keep accurate and current certified operation data; clarify that certified operations only need to submit changes to their organic system plan during annual updates, and clarify that certifying agents must conduct annual inspections of certified operations; establish specific qualification and training requirements for certifying agent personnel, including inspectors and certification reviewers; clarify conditions for establishing, evaluating and terminating equivalence determinations with foreign government organic programs based on an evaluation of their organic foreign conformity systems; clarify requirements to strengthen and streamline enforcement processes; specify certification requirements for grower group operations to provide consistent, enforceable standards and ensure compliance with USDA regulations; clarify the method of calculating the percentage of organic ingredients in a multi-ingredient product; and require certified operations and certifying agents to develop improved recordkeeping, organic fraud prevention and trace-back audit processes.

The coronavirus has boosted organic food sales, jumping more than 50% early in the shelter-at-home period and up more than 20% in the spring of 2020, including sharp increases in sales of organic milk and eggs, two categories that had been seeing softer growth, the Organic Trade Association said.