Photo of Miles McEvoy, chief of the USDA's National Organic Program.

Are consumers right to think that organic food is safer and healthier?

It seems like a straightforward question, especially for Miles McEvoy, the chief of the National Organic Program at USDA. That’s the section of the federal government that champions organic farming practices and defines what food deserves the coveted organic label.

But in an interview Wednesday, McEvoy wouldn't speculate about any  health benefits of organic food, saying the question wasn't "relevant" to the role of the National Organic Program. Nor would he say whether growing consumer demand for organics reflects widening public skepticism of conventional U.S. agriculture.

Maybe McEvoy is unwilling to tout organics over conventional agriculture because, after all, conventional agriculture is the larger part of the USDA's realm. Or maybe he thinks, as some others do, that the science on organics is too tentative.

Whatever the case,  the 57-year-old veteran of the movement was willing enough to talk specifics about how his group decides what foods deserve the USDA's coveted "organic" label.

McEvoy came to the USDA in 2009 after 20 years leading the organic program in  Washington State. This week, he was in La Jolla attending a meeting of the federal advisory board on organics. And while he steered away from the health question, he did hold forth on other topics, including animal treatment and whether consumers can trust “organic” imported food from China and other countries.

Here are excerpts, lightly-edited for clarity.

The sales of products certified by the USDA as “organic” have more than doubled over the last ten years to more than $30 billion annually. Why are Americans increasingly buying “organic”? What do they find wrong with the conventional way of farming?

Well, I can’t really respond to that. I can just say that sales are increasing dramatically  - over double digit growth each year. Even during the recession, there was growth in the organic market... There’s been an increase in basically every sector of organic food. Organic is about 5 percent of U.S. food sales. In some areas its much higher than that. Over 12 percent of fruits and vegetables are organic at this point.

There is an interest in organics around the world. Organic markets are expanding in Korea, in China, in India, in the European Union.

I think it’s just an interest in quality food. Organic is one of those quality food products that America produces. It has certain production practices that resonate with consumers and they feel good about it.

Lots of consumers buy food with the “organic” label because they believe that the food is healthier and safer than conventional. Are they correct?

Again, I am not going to be able to respond to that. It’s just not...We are a regulatory program that regulates the organic label, to ensure that anything that has that label meets the requirements.

[Note: He later expanded in an email: "The question is not relevant to the role of the National Organic Program. I can say that organic farmers and producers provide consumers additional food options. The National Organic Program supports the continued growth of the organic community by developing clear standards, enforcing a level playing-field, and expanding trade opportunities to create new markets for U.S. organic businesses. "]

At least some organic consumers buy “organic” because they believe that organic farmers provide better conditions for their animals. You are currently working on some new animal welfare regulations. What changes are needed?

The organic livestock standards already include a number of animal welfare provisions. The requirements are that you have to care for the health and welfare of the animals. You can’t use some of those allopathic products - like antibiotics and hormones. An organic livestock producer  really has to care for their animals because they don’t have the same kind of medicines or interventions. They rely on good welfare so that the animals are healthy.

The National Organic Standards Board [the federal advisory board meeting this week]  put together a recommendation after many years of work. It expands on those existing animal welfare provisions….

The most controversial part of the recommendation is around [a requirement for] outdoor access for poultry. There is [already] a requirement that the birds have year-round outdoor access, but there is no specificity in the current regulations - in terms of space.  Because of that there is a wide range of practices.

The Cornucopia Institute took aerial photographs last year in which they showed some facilities without any cows out or chickens out on a perfectly nice day. [The group accused the farmers of violating requirements that organic livestock get out to pasture.] Does that worry you?

No, it doesn’t worry me. We have a complaint process. Anyone who thinks that there’s been a violation of the standards can file a complaint. Those photos were part of a complaint from Cornucopia. They are under review. Our initial review is that those photos were taken at a point in time. It really doesn’t indicate one thing or another.

The [organic] certification process is incredibly rigorous...You have an inspector that’s going out and verifying. They’re  on the ground, they’re looking at the animals, ensuring that they’re getting outdoor access, looking at the records, they’re doing unannounced inspections, they’re taking samples, they’re auditing the feed records

A photo maybe  is an indication that something else needs to be looked at but it does not in any way compare to the intense rigorous certification process.

The international production of organic foods has also increased, and the U.S. is now importing hundreds of millions dollars worth of agricultural products that are certified by the USDA as organic. Why should a U.S. consumer believe that a product from China or Mexico or Colombia is organic?

It’s the same inspection and certification process  in Colombia or China or Mexico as it is in the United States. All the certifying agents [inspectors] are accredited by USDA. Every step in the process - the farms are certified, the packing shed is certified, the distributors are certified - and they’re audited.

We conduct audits of these certifiers all over the world. We do dozens of audits in foreign countries every year.

You run the government side of this $30 plus billion industry with a $9 million budget. One of the ways the government keeps costs down is that you have the farmer or food company pay for their organic certification. The inspectors are often private companies. Is there an inherent conflict of interest if you are  hiring your own inspector? If so, how does the system guard against that?

The ag industry is really set up around user fees. Its very common for...the business that is meeting a standard be paying for  inspection and certification services. The system falls under international norms of accreditation and certification. There are a number of different criteria that we have to meet as the accreditor and the certifier has to meet as the certifier. Those things are audited on an ongoing basis. It includes conflict of interest provisions and transparency in terms of the fee structure. We ensure that there are no conflicts of interest that the certifiers have when they conduct these inspections.

You’re attending the semi­annual meeting of a federal advisory board decides what synthetic chemicals and practices should be allowed in the production of “organic” food. Time and again, farmers or food companies ask for the right to use a synthetic chemical, or a substance derived from conventional farming. And time and again, some of the consumer oriented groups ­ like Consumer Reports and the Cornucopia Institute ­ push to ban these chemicals from organic production.

How do you balance the demands of the industry and of consumers?

That’s the role of the National Organic Standards Board. It's fifteen members from a variety of different stakeholder groups. There's four organic farmers, two from the handling side of organics, so six basically industry representatives. Then there's one certifier, one retailer, three from the public interest groups, one scientist and three from the environmental or resource conservation area.

 It's trying to have a balance of interests so that no one particular interest can dominate.

The organic movement started out at least by reputation as a movement embraced by  hippies. It has now become much bigger and more corporate? How does that change the industry?

I was the first inspector in Washington State. [It was 1988] There were 63 farms. I went and visited them all  twice a year. They were all small operations. Now it's a huge industry but it still consists for the most part of people who are dedicated to the principles of organic. There's all sizes of operations. There are a lot more small organic farm than there were 10, 20 years ago. But there's also a number of larger operations, both larger farms and processor and handlers.

It’s a little different because there are a lot more voices. But it’s sort of that same kind of conversation. The joy that I find in it is that the people involved have the same principles the same passion - they might have slightly different opinions about what the standards should be or how quickly they should change - but everyone is committed to a biologically rich farming system that protects the environment , protects farm workers and produces quality food.