A Maine Certifier’s Perspective

(note: this article was written for the Winter 2018-19 issue Alternative Certification Programs. It did not make it in to that issue and I wanted to be sure readers saw it. – editor)

certified-logo-rgb-for-webEstablished in 2002, MOFGA Certification Services LLC (MCS) is a USDA National Organic Program accredited certifier, wholly owned by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), whose mission is to continue MOFGA’s program of independent verification of organic food production. Our program encourages production practices that promote soil health, animal welfare, and farm sustainability in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Prior to the inception of the NOP, MOFGA was one of several certifiers across the country who certified operations to specific organic standards under MOFGA’s control. While there was agreement and alignment across certifier’s standards, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was the first effort to nationalize a standard for all to certify to. MOFGA made the decision to go the route of NOP accreditation in large part for operations that accessed national markets, making the USDA seal appealing for recognition in all markets. MCS currently certifies over 530 operations to the NOP standard.

One would assume that this national accreditation means that all USDA accredited certifiers make determinations and certification decisions in the same way; but the rules are not that clear in some areas and were made to be flexible as the landscape shifts and expands. Without hard and fast rules, certifiers are left to work together as a community in hopes of finding commonality. When we ask the NOP about certain scenarios and production systems that have no precedent, we often hear, “Check with other certifiers” or “The rule says this…”. The authors and rule makers understood that continuous improvements and changes are necessary to adjust to a growing sector. They created mechanisms to scrutinize existing rules and to make new ones, utilizing a citizen board to develop recommendations, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). As the organic sector has grown to meet demand, so too have allowances for certain types of production. Instead of a systemwide rulemaking approach, certification agencies have made determinations that have changed the course of the entire industry. In many cases, USDA is the entity left to sort out these interpretations and differences between certifiers. And in many cases, it is done playing catch up, as the rulemaking process is a beast that operates at a snail’s pace compared to industry.

While many of the original architects of the organic standards are dismayed at how this could have happened based on the intent of the rule, and more importantly what to do about it, I often wonder how we can affect the change we want to see as organic continues to grow in the marketplace. MOFGA does not certify hydroponic or CAFO operations based not only on lack of staff expertise but also on our interpretation of the standards, yet other certifiers do. And with NOP reaffirming the allowance of hydroponic and aquaponic through public statements in 2018, we are left with a divided regulatory situation that continues to create confusion with the very people the rule was intended to help, the end consumer.

As MOFGA moves toward its 50th birthday, the world of organic agriculture differs vastly from the world in 1971, when MOFGA was formed. In many ways the terms “success” and “achievement” describe where we have come in that time. More and more we see informed shoppers, eaters and local and regional food systems expanding with an eye toward organic and sustainable growing practices. Farmers’ markets are everywhere, selling diverse items; major grocery chains fill their aisles with organic offerings; and federal programs continue to offer support for these initiatives. Yet like many good things forced to play in the current economic model, some of the original intent of a national organic standards system is eroding. While many continue to foster the ideals borne of MOFGA’s beginnings, new systems, technology and “maximizing shareholder profits” elicit increased attention and pushback from others.

At the annual Accredited Certifiers Association and USDA National Organic Program’s (NOP) certifier training, held in San Antonio in February 2018, the focus was on reporting about recent breakdowns in the integrity of product certified as organic and steps taken to mitigate these risks moving forward. In addition, many strategies were discussed and presented to align certifiers around best practices for dealing with integrity issues in the supply chain.

With journalism stories in 2016 and 2017 uncovering compliance and fraud issues both at the national and international level, the NOP has taken major steps to address these issues, specifically on imports. As the investigations moved forward, many were surprised to find that the NOP, through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) legislation, was not given any authority over imports at the border or ports coming into the country with certified organic labeling. Due to this lack of authority, the NOP has created partnerships with other agencies that do, specifically USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). The NOP developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with CBP (to alert NOP of any suspicious shipments) and with APHIS (to alert NOP of any prohibited treatments of shipments as conditions of entry). The MOUs were finalized in August 2017, and as of the training, the NOP had already received over one thousand email notifications from port authorities across the country alerting them of applications of prohibited substances as conditions of entry for certain shipments, including ones labeled as organic.

APHIS publishes a number of manuals online, at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/complete-list-of-electronic-manuals, to alert consumers, brokers, and growers of the pre-established conditions for entry of any particular agricultural product from any country in the world. Specifically, the training focused on the Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements (FAVIR) manual, and what treatments at which ports from certain countries are applied. As an example, all asparagus coming into the United States from Peru, whether organic or conventional, must undergo a treatment of methyl bromide as a condition of entry (methyl bromide is considered a “prohibited substance” in organic production). In many instances, the certifier is not alerted to these types of treatments, as the rules only require that the “owner” of the product is informed. Prior to the MOUs, this product was passing through and into the commerce stream without the NOP or the certifier ever knowing.

For certifiers who are tasked with auditing the product trail from seed to final sale, this is a huge challenge. Many shipments coming into the US may be bought and sold several times (sometimes while still on the ship). The brokers are not forthcoming with the documentation needed to verify compliance through the whole supply chain. To further complicate the issue, handlers of organic products are not required to be certified under an exemption in the current rule (there may be possible rulemaking on this in the coming year). This also speaks to the need and continued efforts to increase domestic organic production, thus greater removing the possibility of fraudulent product entering the market. Trust in the organic label is the cornerstone of its success, and it is up to the NOP and accredited certifiers to insure integrity and compliance to the standards, regardless of where the product is grown or produced.

These revelations and initial strategic steps are necessary and long overdue. The NOP budget was increased in the recent congressional omnibus spending bill, in large part to combat fraud and bolster enforcement. While progress has been made, there is a lot left to do. It is our hope that the NOP will continue to make strides to ensure organic integrity of all USDA certified organic products, both domestically and abroad.

A prime example of where the NOP regulations, or consistent enforcement, have challenged the concept of a level playing field for all is in the dairy sector, specifically with fluid wholesale milk. The national market has seen significant issues with over supply, in large part due to very large operations that have come onto the market during the last several years. While it wasn’t very long ago that the country faced organic milk shortages and there were cries for additional supply, farmers are now in a situation where there are caps, quotas, and herd reductions. This over supply has hit the Northeast farmers very hard, and we have seen several long time, quality operations succumb to these market pressures over the past two seasons, with more possible in the coming year.

These large operations may have several thousand animals in a given location, and from many accounts, do not offer enough pasture for the amount of animals to comply with the Pasture Practice Standard. Some question how that many animals can be moved from pasture to milk room and back in any given day.

Many hopes are in play as the NOP moves forward – a newly appointed Deputy Administrator, Jenny Tucker, is in place with an eye toward consistency and enforcement, particularly through technology and information sharing. The NOP budget has been significantly increased to allow for additional personnel, specifically with compliance, investigation and enforcement. The October 2018 National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting showed some promise that at the very least, conversations and discussions are happening. Items on the agenda included Organic Control Systems, Farm to Market Traceability, Enhanced Enforcement, and Community Cooperation.

Though with this hope also comes the reality of the regulatory environment, especially when forced to play with political agendas. This was evidenced by the withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule, adopted in the final days of the Obama administration. This final rule had taken years to finalize and implement, and garnered near unanimous support within the organic industry, a feat rarely accomplished. When the Trump administration took office, the rule was immediately delayed, and after several months was withdrawn completely. To many, this rule was an important next step to bring consistency to the standards and a clarity that would remove any unfair advantages from the original intent of the organic livestock regulations. Some think that the rule may not be gone forever, as there is still one legal challenge to the withdrawal still pending.

All of this points to the need to continue to form alliances and roll up our sleeves to insure that the original intent of the standards are not shifted to meet the needs of production systems, but rather the other way around. As we know, lobby efforts play a big role, and we must continue to make our voices heard. We must maintain our place in these discussion and remain active on all fronts to ensure organic integrity remains the paramount goal. Current and future generations of eaters are counting on us!