For brands in the $40 billion U.S. market for organic food and beverages, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic seal is more than just another call-out for product packaging — it defines their position in the retail landscape.
The integrity of the USDA Certified Organic seal is critical to the industry as a whole, and a reason why a recent article in The Washington Post is raising concerns from some members of the organic dairy community about how the practices of some large scale organic dairy operations may be affecting other brands and companies working within the space.
Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director at the Organic Trade Association (OTA), told BevNET the group supports investigations into any allegations of wrongdoing across the supply chain, citing the need to assure the public trust in organic certified products.
“The message we’re hearing from our members is sort of alleging that the whole system is broken because of the potential for or allegations of wrongdoing really does a disservice to the thousands of operations, inspectors and certifiers that are doing a really good job safeguarding the organic seal,” he said.
The allegations Lewis refers to originated in a May 1 article by Post reporter Peter Whorisky, titled “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic,” which examined several large scale organic dairy operations and found “critical weaknesses in the unorthodox inspection system” used by the USDA.
The agency’s guidelines for organic certification of dairy livestock requires for cows to be grazed on pasture during grazing season and to be kept in healthy, low-stress environments, as well as other provisions. Any organic operation with sales in excess of $5,000 per year, as well as companies that wish to sell products to be used as organic ingredients, need to be certified by a USDA-accredited agent.
In its reporting, The Post visited a facility run by Aurora Organic Dairy in High Plains, Colo. over eight days last year. Reporters at no point observed more than 10 percent of the herd, or a few hundred cows, grazing on pasture. In addition, tests conducted for The Post by scientists at Virginia Tech showed that Aurora’s milk matched conventional milk rather than organic when examined for a key indicator of grass-feeding.
A spokesperson for Aurora denied the accusations, telling The Post: “The requirements of the USDA National Organic Program allow for an extremely wide range of grazing practices that comply with the rule.
Discussions with people in the organic food and beverage community about the revelations detailed in The Post drew a range of responses.
In an e-mail to BevNET, Beth Unger, regulatory engagement manager at Organic Valley, an independent cooperative of organic farmers based in Wisconsin, echoed those feelings. “If a producer isn’t following the rules, there is a process for investigating and revoking their certificates, protecting those who are following the rules,” she said.
A spokesperson for Horizon Organic, which partners with over 600 family farms in 23 states to supply the majority of its milk, said in an e-mail that the company was focused on promoting the benefits of organic by building solidarity and collaboration in the industry.
“We rely on consumer confidence in the organic seal for its success in the marketplace, and this confidence is intrinsically linked to a rigorous system of audits, inspections, and monitoring of all certified operations to organic’s clear and strict standards,” said the spokesperson.
In an interview with BevNET, Errol Schweizer, a former vice president of grocery for Whole Foods and a board member for several companies in the natural food space, emphasized that the issues discussed in the Post article did not reflect a larger concern across the organic industry and that the operations highlighted in the story are the exception rather than the rule. Yet he noted that mass scaling in organic, which has brought lower prices and broadened consumer access to such products, may have enabled a looser interpretation of standards.
“I think there’s a problem with the scale creating a race to the bottom in terms of quality, unless there’s really strong check and balances in the system.” Schweizer said. “When you’re able to sell organic products cheaply, I think it’s important as a retailer or a customer that you have to scrutinize your supply chain. We have to appreciate that it is accessible and available and there’s many more people consuming organic, but I think there is some price to pay here because what you see probably doesn’t meet the expectations of what most consumers would consider organic.”
Expanding beyond individual operations, the Post story also detailed issues related to the organic certification process, in which USDA-accredited agents — private companies and organizations hired by individual farmers — make annual inspections. The USDA reviews the records of each inspector every 2.5 years.
In its review of Aurora’s practices, The Post found that staff from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, at an annual cost of $13,000, conducted an inspection after the conclusion of grazing season in November. The USDA requires all inspections to take place during grazing season, which typically runs from spring until the first frost. Sanctions can include financial penalties of up to $11,000 per violation and potential revocation of the farm of business’s organic certificate.
According to a list published on the USDA’s website, the most recent U.S. accreditation firm to lose its accreditation was Organic National and International Certifiers in April 2014.
“I’m not a regulatory expert, but I do feel that there’s probably a loose interpretation of the standards here and there’s definitely some responsibility on the shoulder of the certifier,” said Schweizer. “I have a hard time understanding how these types of farms are passing the audit, and then that the USDA is continuing to allow these farms to pass an audit based on their production methods. So I see it mostly from the retail point of view, but my gut says there’s something wrong there.”
Exerting influence over regulatory bodies is one way in which brands and trade organizations are taking action to safeguard and improve organic standards. Lewis said that the OTA seeks to influence regulatory guidelines through its involvement with the National Organic Standards Board, the body which advises the USDA on organic guidelines.
“I think our main objective [at OTA] in that realm is to ensure that the organic standards are scale neutral and consistently applied across the board regardless of size or location of operation,” he said, adding that the organization advocates for strong funding of the National Organic Program as well as the USDA. “Having a level playing field for all types of producers is really the best way to ensure integrity, maintain public confidence and to allow all types of operations to succeed in the organic marketplace.”
“We are on record supporting stricter standards especially for animal health and welfare, such as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule,” said Unger, referring to a comprehensive set of federal standards for on-farm welfare currently being deliberated. “We believe the standards should optimize animal health and maximize their opportunities to express their natural behaviors.”
While pushing for gradual improvements on a regulatory level, Schweizer said that the most immediate way of addressing issues related to organic certification was for the industry to scrutinize itself more closely.
“I just think that there needs to be an effort on the part of the organic community — and that includes both producers, consumers and retailers — to police their own,” he said. “I think democracy in the marketplace and transparency and making sure that folks are all playing by the rules is as important as the enforcement on the regulatory side from certifiers as well as agencies. I want to emphasize that there needs to be scrutiny from the organic community and the organic industry on folks that are playing loose and fast with the regulation that we all have to follow to maintain the integrity of the marketplace.”