USDA Inspector General Finds Bush Administration Ignored Organic Laws

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...

March 18, 2010 | Source: The Cornucopia Institute | by

WASHINGTON, DC: 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
, 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

“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.”

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

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.”