By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009 5:59 PM
A House agriculture appropriations bill has approved $500,000 for the USDA's inspector general to investigate the department's National Organic Program, to determine whether federal standards are being properly observed before farmers and food producers are allowed to use the certified organic label on food products.
The bill's passage Thursday represents the first step in establishing the Agriculture Department's fiscal 2010 budget. The Senate version of the bill does not include the additional funding, but Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the federal law that established the organics program, believes the inspector general needs additional resources for the effort and might propose an amendment to add a similar amount of funding when the appropriations bill comes to the Senate floor.
Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) proposed the additional funding to the Agriculture Appropriations Act in response to a Washington Post article that revealed how the program's lax and uneven enforcement of organics standards has harmed the integrity of the seven-year-old program.
The inspector general's office has been working for months on a review of the program.
"We want to move ahead aggressively to maintain the integrity of the USDA-certified designation, and the first step is to see what the problems are and where the integrity might have been compromised," Holt said in an interview yesterday.
The additional funding, Holt said, would allow for a "thorough investigation" to determine "whether or not current inspectors are ensuring that the most rigorous standards for certification are honored when determining if a product may bear the USDA Organic label."
The extra funding would also expand the probe to determine whether non-organic substances are inappropriately being allowed in small amounts into certified organic foods. The number of non-organic substances that the USDA allows into certified organic products has increased from 77 to 245 since the program started in 2002.
Officials in Holt's office said they hope to use the results of the investigation to determine what, if any, reforms are needed and whether new legislation is needed to improve the program.