USDA Inspector General Finds Bush Administration Ignored Organic Laws

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

USDA Inspector General Finds Bush Administration Ignored Organic Laws

New Management at USDA Reforms, Strengthens National Organic Program

WASHINGTON - After an extensive audit and investigation of
alleged improprieties at the
USDA's National Organic Program, the agency's Office of Inspector
General (OIG)
made public their
formal report
, dated March 9, substantiating the allegations of
prominent
organic industry watchdog groups — that under the Bush administration,
the USDA did an inadequate job of enforcing federal organic law.

Since 2002, when the USDA adopted the federal
organic regulations, the
agency has been plagued by underfunding and a number of scandals and
complaints
about its cozy relationship with agribusiness interests and lobbyists.

"We are satisfied with the thoroughness of the
investigation
conducted by the USDA's Inspector General," said Mark
Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia
Institute.  "And, we are pleased and impressed by the earnest
response of the current management at the USDA's Agricultural Marketing
Service
(AMS), and its National Organic Program, in responding to the report’s
critical findings."

The audit of the National Organic Program found
that improvements in
the program had been made, but also identified 14 major concerns
requiring
better management controls and the need to strengthen enforcement as
well as
oversight of organic certification agents. 

In a letter dated May 10, 2008, The Cornucopia
Institute, a farm policy
research group, had formally requested the USDA's Inspector General
investigate
questionable enforcement practices, and deficiencies, in the NOP’s
oversight of the organic industry.  An investigative report last year by
the Washington Post
concerning
mismanagement at the NOP, and public concerns expressed by Congress,
made the
release of the OIG audit highly anticipated.

Some of the most troubling findings of the new
audit include not
following through on enforcement after violations were confirmed by
federal law
enforcement investigators.  When enforcement was pursued, the USDA
sometimes delayed action for as long as 32 months.  And the NOP could
not
document for OIG investigators the status of 19 complaints it had
received,
since 2004, that alleged illegal activity. 

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Will
Fantle, The Cornucopia Institute’s
Research Director.  "Spotty enforcement of organic rules, since 2002,
has enabled a number of giant factory farms, engaged in suspect
practices, to
place ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage, particularly
in
organic dairy, beef and egg production."

The report pointed out that the State of
California, which was given authority to
oversee the USDA’s organic standards in that state, was woefully
inadequate
in its oversight and enforcement capabilities.  With growing organic
imports, from countries like China,
the audit also found that foreign certifiers were not properly
supervised.

"Obviously, these are troubling findings.  But
we are
satisfied that, finally, these deficiencies are being taken seriously by
the
political appointees at the USDA," added Fantle.

In a formal response to the OIG report, AMS
administrator Rayne Pegg at
the USDA stated that she "reviewed the report and agree[d] in principle
with its findings and recommendations." 

In her response, she outlined a number of areas
where the AMS and
National Organic Program had already taken remedial action or would do
so in
the near-term. 

Although a long-time critic of the management
at the USDA's National
Organic Program, Cornucopia, an aggressive industry watchdog, affirmed
its
belief in the credibility of the current organic program and said it
would
continue to fight for "excellence" in public service at the federal
agency.

"With mandatory annual inspections of farms and
processors, and
audits of transactional documents, consumers should feel comfortable
with the
credibility of the organic food they are purchasing," Kastel added. 
"The organic label is still the gold
standard for families seeking the safest and most nutritious
food.  We need to work earnestly to make sure that it continues to
deserve
the trust of consumers."

Although not mentioned by name, the OIG audit
identifies numerous
actions and decisions by the former organic program manager (Dr. Barbara
Robinson) for some of the most serious enforcement deficiencies in the
agency.

After the Obama administration and USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack took the
reins at the USDA, one of their first actions was to appoint Dr.
Kathleen Merrigan,
a former Tufts University professor who is widely
respected in the organic community and is an expert in farming and food
regulations, as the Deputy Secretary at the agency.

Last fall, Dr. Merrigan appointed Miles
McEvoy to replace Robinson as the head of the organic
program.  McEvoy, with a distinguished 20-year career overseeing one of
the largest state organic programs in the nation at the Washington
Department
of Agriculture, quickly announced "the age of enforcement" was at hand
for the organic program.

"I think the Obama/Vilsack administration is
serious about
cracking down on abuses by corporate agribusiness, and others attempting
to
exploit the organic label," noted Kastel.  "We are organic
watchdogs, not lapdogs, so we will continue to judiciously monitor
progress at
the USDA.  But so far, the actions and words by the new managers at the
organic program lead me to believe they are sincere in the statements
they are
making." 

###

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community.  Their Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.  Their web page can be viewed at www.cornucopia.org.  

 

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