The plan includes immediately actionable steps as well as longer-term regulatory efforts to strengthen organic control systems, improve farm to market traceability and bolster enforcement so that consumers and stakeholders alike can trust the process, Jennifer Tucker, associate deputy administrator of the NOP, said at the Organic Trade Associations’ Policy Conference in Washington, DC, last week.
“The organic sector remains strong and vibrant and consumers continue to trust the organic label. The organic certification process is rigorous and USDA is committed to making sure that farms and businesses have a level playing field,” Tucker said.
As such, she explained, “NOP enforcement is our top priority and this commitment is reflected in the Secretary’s Principles for Organic,” as well as the “efficient and effective oversight of organic production practices that ensure organic products meet consistent standards.”
The agency’s “action plan” to root out and remove fraud, includes “three core areas where we are pursuing a number of actions: Strong organic control systems, which lead to trusted people, processes and tools; farm to market traceability that leads to worldwide supply chain integrity; and robust enforcement that creates a level playing field for everyone.”
Under the first prong, strong organic control systems, Tucker said NOP is increasing training for certifiers, inspectors and reviewers to ensure they understand key regulatory requirements, trace-back approaches and mass-balance audits. It also is exploring new models for risk-based accreditation audits.
On the regulatory side to strengthen organic control systems, Tucker said NOP is looking at a proposed rule that includes a federated organic certificate, organic certification expiration dates, and mandatory accreditation of certifier satellite offices.
NOP also is considering better requirements for grower groups to maintain organic integrity and clear qualification and training requirements, including continuing education for inspectors and reviewers, she said.
Farm to market traceability
To better ensure worldwide supply chain integrity, NOP is working closely with global partners to improve farm to market traceability in part by launching electronic export certifications and identifying additional requirements for international supply chain technologies, Tucker said.
“On the regulatory side of this part of the action plan, we are talking about requiring increased reporting to the organic integrity database. We tried to build a database to facilitate easy and more frequent data submittals and now we are looking at making those submittals required,” Tucker said.
NOP also is considering eliminating exclusions for uncertified handlers, but Tucker said the agency needs feedback from industry on the benefits and costs as well as the scope of such a project.
NOP also needs feedback from stakeholders on potentially requiring electronic certificates for all imports as a measure to protect against fraudulently produced paper copies.
Tying all these elements together, NOP is looking at creating a worldwide organic supply chain traceability system that would allow farms and initial collection points to enter data into the system that could then be traced passed handlers, brokers and anyone in the market. This would allow organic certifiers to trace the product across the supply chain, confirm transaction authenticity and give NOP full visibility into audits.
“We are very open to what this looks like. We probably don’t envision some kind of giant government database in the sky to manage all this, but we do need to think about what the governance would be in an international system,” Tucker said.
Blockchain is one option, but Tucker warns there are “a lot of risks associated with a distributed ledger system, which is what blockchain is. So, there are a lot of dynamics we need to learn about and find out whether the benefits of this outweigh those risks.”
For example, she said, one of the key risks is how to connect data and products. In addition, if someone can enter fraudulent data on paper then “guess what they can do?” Tucker said. “They can enter that fraudulent information into a computer just as easily. So, let’s be honest about what blockchain can and cannot accomplish and come up with a pragmatic approach that will really, truly protect the market.”
Finally, NOP is reinforcing enforcement efforts by increasing NOP-led on-site surveillance and investigations as well as NOP investigative capabilities, Tucker said.
“We are talking about [added] staff but also about staff capabilities. Just like we want certifiers to be doing a lot of training, we also need to make sure all of our compliance specialists are able to keep up with the changes that are happening on the market,” she said.
NOP also is expediting its formal complaint process, plans to post publicly more of its enforcement actions as a deterrent and is considering risk-based approaches to review complaints as they are filed. It also hopes to codify unannounced inspections, Tucker said.
“We are increasing our onsite surveillance in 2018 and we will be conducting unannounced inspections of US dairies, and have already started the process of conducting site visits and inspections with grain importers,” she said.
As NOP ramps up enforcement, it plans to revise its appeals and noncompliance process to be more efficient and faster so that those facing increased scrutiny can share their side more easily, she added.