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California watches as the USDA tightens organic certification regulations to reduce label fraud

In this July 9, 2018 photo a "USDA Organic" label is printed on the label of a pound of ground beef, in Walpole, Mass.
Steven Senne, File
AP Photo
In this July 9, 2018 photo a "USDA Organic" label is printed on the label of a pound of ground beef, in Walpole, Mass.

The federal government has a new plan to crack down on organic label fraud in the food industry. And with about 20 percent of the nation's organic farms and acreage, California has a strong interest in how that's done.

The Department of Agriculture sets guidelines for which foods can be labeled “certified organic.” Those guidelines typically address a farming operation’s soil quality, livestock treatment, pest and weed control and use of genetically modified organisms.

In January, the USDA announced plans to bolster those guidelines by issuing the Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule. The new regulations are aimed at closing loopholes that previously allowed non-organic ingredients into products labeled organic.

The SOE rule will require more businesses — like brokers and traders — to become certified, increase inspections at already-certified operations and create more robust recordkeeping and fraud prevention procedures, among other things, according to the USDA.

“The Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule is the biggest update to the organic regulations since the original Act in 1990,” USDA Under Secretary Jenny Lester Moffitt said in a prepared statement. She added that the move will “reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production.”

April Vasquez is the Chief Certifications Officer at California Certified Organic Farmers, or CCOF, which certifies organic farming productions on behalf of the USDA. CCOF is one of the oldest and largest organizations of its kind in the nation.

CapRadio’s Randol White sat down with Vasquez, who explained how California’s oversized role in the industry might be affected by these changes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How big of a problem is organic fraud?

I would say that it is a small problem when we're looking at the whole organic industry. There are a lot of good players out there, but it just takes one or two bad players to really draw attention to it. And I think Strengthening Organic Enforcement is the rule to really help us crack down on those bad players.

Is this something we're more likely to see in the produce aisle or in the packaged goods section?

Probably more likely in the packaged goods section.

What is it that the USDA is changing exactly?

Well, [the USDA is] basically trying to put more oversight on the supply chain. They're increasing oversight on certification bodies, like CCOF. Certifiers are going to be upheld to more requirements. The really big one is removing exemptions. So under the current regulation, brokers, traders and private label owners are not required to be certified, and that has created more opportunity for fraud.

Do you expect these new USDA rules to help?

Absolutely. By increasing oversight on the folks who have not had to be certified, we’ll have much better visibility into the entire supply chain. [That] can get really tricky when you have different middlemen sourcing and providing ingredients for organic products.

Can consumers in California be confident that they're buying something organic when it has the label organic?

Absolutely. There are mechanisms in place to ensure the integrity of products that are labeled with the USDA label.

And does California have stricter organic laws then the nation? How might these changes affect growers here in the state?

Well, I think that's a big misunderstanding. You know, any product that's labeled with the USDA certified organic logo has to be produced in a compliant manner. And that's the same regulation across the entire nation. It is not any different in California. California does have lots of regulations that impact growers that are not part of that certification process, like water limitations and fertilizer laws, that sort of thing. But in terms of organic, when you see the USDA seal, you can be assured that all of the products are being held to that compliance at [a] federal level.

Organics has evolved quite a bit over the last several decades. Where do you see it going from here?

I hope to see it continue to grow. Our mission at CCOF, our vision, is for organic to be the norm. That is really what we want to see, is an increase in organic acreage in the state of California and across the nation, because that's good for the environment, that's good for our health, and it's good for farmworkers.

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