By Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009
The U.S. Agriculture Department has ordered an audit of its National Organic Program, saying that external scrutiny is needed to improve the integrity, transparency and reliability of the seven-year-old food program.
The audit will look at whether the program is using strict, internationally recognized standards for accrediting and overseeing its network of nearly 100 private certifiers, which have been granted authority to determine whether foods meet federal organic standards.
The review is scheduled to begin in October and will be performed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal program within the Commerce Department, and is expected to take several months. The results will be made public and will include recommendations to USDA officials to bring the program up to international standards.
"We understand the value of this step as we continue working to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to build the organic community's trust in the program," USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen A. Merrigan said in an undated letter to the National Organic Coalition.
USDA officials did not provide further comment.
The coalition, a national alliance of organic farmers, certifiers and other groups, wrote to President Obama's transition team in December asking for the external evaluation. The review will also include ongoing oversight of the program by the federal institute to keep improvements in place and to provide guidance as international standards are set for a growing number of food products.
"Our hope is this will bring about consistency in the standards and with the way they deal with certifiers," said Steve Etka, the coalition's legislative coordinator.
The Washington Post published a story last month describing how federal organics standards had been relaxed as a result of decisions by program officials and an advisory board that had approved a growing list of non-organic ingredients. Also, certifiers often set their own criteria for determining what products earn the federal organic label, leading some food producers to shop around for certifiers.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), author of the federal law that established the organics program, said that he has had a series of conversations recently with USDA officials, pressing for reforms. At Leahy's urging, the Senate on Tuesday passed an appropriations bill providing $500,000 to the USDA's inspector general to expand an audit of the program. Last month, the House passed a similar measure.