The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) said Monday it has completed a draft proposed rule aimed at strengthening the oversight and enforcement of organic products imported to the U.S. market.
“NOP’s import oversight work continues to impact the organic market,” the agency said in its latest Summary of Activities Report, adding that “a number of certified farms and businesses have exited the organic market in South America, and a number of certifiers have decreased their geographic range of certification coverage to better manage risk.”
In late 2019, the NOP launched a “large-scale audit” investigation in Argentina that included an evaluation of “significant organic grain supply chains.” Argentina is a major organic animal feed supplier to the U.S. market.
“The investigation resulted in multiple surrenders of grain handlers and a noncompliance for a certifier operating in the country,” the report said.
The investigation in Argentina followed a crackdown by NOP in the Black Sea region, the source origin of major supplies of U.S. imports of organic livestock feed ingredients such as soybeans and corn.
In December, the NOP told Sustainable Food News that over the past two years, nearly 75 percent of formerly certified-organic operations, about 275 operations, in the Black Sea region have either lost their USDA organic certificates through a suspension or revocation or surrendered them voluntarily.
NOP boosts ties with CBP
NOP’s newly completed draft proposed rule, titled “Strengthening Organic Enforcement,” would implement provisions related to handler certifications, import certificates, and certifier oversight called for in the 2018 farm bill, which called for the USDA and Department of Homeland Security to establish an interagency working group to coordinate the sharing of information between the NOP and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) related to organic imports and supply chain integrity.
The CBP and the NOP signed an MOU in July to give the NOP access to specific trade and shipment data at the manifest level.
CBP is currently building the technology proposed within the draft proposed rule and, once completed, a new message will be integrated into CBP’s Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) for pilot testing of organic import certificates this spring, according to the report.
“Because the system is not yet complete and in use, we cannot yet provide the detailed quantitative data outlined in the farm bill,” NOP said in its report.
Meanwhile, the NOP is also currently drafting an MOU that will allow an NOP staff person to be fully embedded within the Commercial Targeting and Analysis Center at CBP.
“The person in this position, along with members of more than 20 other federal agencies, will have access to CBP’s entire suite of data enforcement tools that will allow NOP to further its enforcement and compliance mission and deepen our coordination with other Federal agencies with an interest in organic trade,” according to the report.
In addition, the CBP and NOP are partnering on a new effort to protect the USDA organic seal from trademark infringement.
The NOP said it has submitted over 30 seals, logos, and shield for legal review and for processing at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Once the seals and shields are trademarked, CBP will add the logos into its border enforcement operations and seize any fraudulent imports bearing USDA logos, according to the report.
The NOP said it also continues to work with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), its sister agency with the USDA, to identify options for aligning fumigation reporting with CBP’s existing import system and the upcoming organic import certificates.
This will allow organic shipments that undergo fumigation to be immediately flagged once the ACE message is in place. For example, methyl bromide is prohibited for use on certified-organic commodities.
“While this technology development is underway, APHIS has been providing NOP with general data updates about fumigated products potentially labeled as organic,” the report said. “Early work in 2018 by NOP and APHIS focused on identifying and resolving reporting challenges and increasing personnel training on how to recognize organic products. This was needed because of early ‘false positives,’ where products coded as organic by field personnel were subsequently confirmed by organic certifiers to never have been represented or sold as organic.”
Based on the resulting data quality improvements, fewer than 90 organic food imports were reported as fumigated on entry to the United States in 2019. And, thanks to a pilot project with a port of entry, just four of these shipments of fumigated organic imports were investigated and relabeled as conventional, according to the report.
Due to the current lack of organic import data from the ACE system, and the current exemptions/exclusions in the USDA organic regulations related to organic traders, organic certifiers did not have oversight of the remaining imports, the report said.
About 15 kinds of organic products were fumigated in 2019; nearly all were fruits or vegetables, with the top three fumigated items being bell peppers, bananas, and herbs, the report said.
Most fumigated organic imports come from Central and South America. Colombia is the biggest source of fumigated organic imports, along with Peru and Ecuador. The bell peppers were primarily from the Netherlands and Israel.
Most commonly fumigated organic imports in 2019
Three pillars of new draft proposed rule
The NOP said the draft proposed rule will soon be published in the Federal Register, opening a 60-day public comment period.
The report also provides a summary of NOP enforcement activities for the first quarter of FY2020.
Read the full Summary of Activities report here.