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Organic Consumers Association

Message to Obama: Please Fix the USDA's Organic Mess Overhaul of Management and Culture Needed

  • Washington Post investigative story a scathing indictment of Bush Administration tenure at the National Organic Program
    Cornucopia Institute, July 3, 2009
    Straight to the Source

 Cornucopia, WI - President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are being urged to take immediate action to repair the USDA's increasingly dysfunctional National Organic Program (NOP).  Suspect imports of grains, nuts, and vegetables from China and other countries, questionable organic milk, beef, and eggs from giant factory farms, and a cozy relationship between USDA managers and corporate agribusiness lobbyists are said to be injuring the organic label's reputation.

Consumer demand for organic foods has skyrocketed in recent years, propelling organics into a 24 billion dollar a year business.  That same hunger for organics has encouraged some large corporations, factory farms, and foreign producers to move into the U.S. organic business-but without allegedly upholding federal organic production standards.

The Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing family farmers, has sent a formal letter and briefing paper to President Obama and Secretary Vilsack, specifically asking that they take "a very strong and proactive posture in turning around management at the National Organic Program (NOP)," which they described as being "Katrina-ed" by the Bush administration.  Thousands of organic farmers and consumers have also contacted the President and USDA Secretary.

"The stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute abomination," said Mark A. Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst. "It was not just management by neglect-it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the Department's oversight of the industry."

In the last several years, audits prepared by the American National Standards Institute and the Inspector General's office have blasted the NOP for failing to ensure that independent certification agencies, which verify organic farming and production practices, are competent and properly performing their jobs.

According to a July 3 Washington Post story, the USDA's Inspector General's office has widened an ongoing investigation and is looking at the Department's oversight of private certifiers.  The Cornucopia Institute formally requested the Inspector General's investigation after Bush administration officials failed to look into alleged improprieties by management at the organic program.

Among other grievances, the Department is accused of sidestepping protections and oversight implemented by Congress.  According to the Post, 65 policy resolutions adopted by the National Organic Standards Board, the expert citizen advisory panel to the NOP, have never been reviewed or implemented since 2002.

"In addition to starving the National Organic Program for adequate funding, the political environment at the USDA has always been hostile to the organic industry," said Kastel.

During the Bush administration, political appointees at the USDA had also significantly softened penalties for organic lawbreakers and overruled stiff enforcement actions recommended by career civil servants for factory farms that were found to be willfully violating federal organic standards.  Other complaints detailing abuses on factory farms were quashed or went uninvestigated.    

"If organic food production and eating had not caught on so well, we wouldn't see these scofflaws doing their thing," observed Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock farmer from Michigan and former member of the National Organic Standards Board.  Clark added, "It's time to change the culture at the USDA."

The Cornucopia Institute launched a "Change@USDA" campaign earlier this year and is helping stakeholders in the organic community to unite for rehabilitation of the NOP.  The farm group has helped coordinate many letters from industry stakeholders, letters to both Mr. Obama and Secretary Vilsack, from farmers, retailers, business executives and consumers, supporting a sweeping management shakeup at the National Organic Program.

One sign that the new administration at the USDA is taking the concerns of organic and sustainable farming interests to heart was the appointment by Secretary Vilsack of Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University assistant professor, as USDA Deputy Secretary.  Merrigan helped write the original organic law adopted by Congress as an aide to its prime sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"I cannot think of a more qualified public policy expert to take on this important role at what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the 'peoplg's department, '" Kastel affirmed.  The Cornucopia Institute, and many other farm organizations, lobbied hard for Merrigan's appointment.  "I hope this is representative of President Obama and Secretary Vilsack subscribing to the old adage that 'good government equals good politics,'" he added.

"The certified organic label belongs to the thousands of ethical organic family farmers, and their consumer allies and patrons, who have built the vibrant organic agricultural and food market," said Peter Wiesner, General Manager at the Hungry Hollow Co-op in Chestnut Ridge, New York. "We need new management at the National Organic Program if we are to reclaim the organic label," Wiesner said.

As questions swirl around the handling of organics by the NOP, a true crisis is unfolding in the organic dairy sector.  Ethical organic dairy farmers, and the co-ops and family-owned businesses they partner with for processing and marketing, are getting hammered by cheap, allegedly phony "organic" milk from giant factory farms and alleged predatory pricing by the $11 billion agribusiness behemoth, Dean Foods.

Dean Foods, owner of 50 different milk brands, including the nation's leading organic dairy label, Horizon Organic, has heavily discounted their retail pricing, driving down market prices for all competitors. Dean/Horizon gets a large percentage of their milk from their Idaho industrial dairy, which has managed as many as 8000 head of cattle, and from many other mega-farms they contract with.  Just this week, it was announced that Dean Foods would come out with a "natural" version of Horizon milk products positioned as a new, lower-cost competitor to organic dairy.

"Natural milk is really conventional milk without bovine growth hormones, so Dean Foods' introduction of Horizon "natural" dairy products is just plain profiteering at the expense of legitimate organic farmers," said Will Fantle, research director at Cornucopia.  "Unlike organics, there is no independent 3rd party verification of this claim, and "natural" fails to include other key organic practices, such as prohibitions against toxic agrichemicals, antibiotics and other drugs in livestock production, as well as unhealthy synthetic food additives in the final product," added Fantle. Organic dairy production standards also require that the animals graze on pasture rather than being confined to feedlots on factory farms.

Meanwhile, the majority of the private-label, also called "store-brand," milk (which is usually cheaper than branded organic milk) marketed by Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway, Target, and other grocery chains comes from the controversial Aurora Dairy, operator of five giant factory farms in Texas and Colorado.  The USDA found that Aurora had seriously violated the organic regulations but instead of decertifying the operation, as was recommended by career civil servants, the Bush Administration allowed them to continue in business.

In their research The Cornucopia Institute has stressed that although corporate marketers, like Dean Foods and Aurora, are large they are sad aberrations in the organic industry.  "90% of all the namebrand organic dairy products reviewed in our survey were rated as excellent in terms of their adherence to both the letter and spirit of the organic law, stated the Cornucopia's Kastel.  Their scorecard of 110 organic brands, for use by consumers or wholesale buyers, is available on their website.

Coverage of the slowdown in the organic dairy market was also poignantly featured in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3, the same day the Post's investigative report ran.  The Dispatch's story featured organic dairy farmers that were being squeezed out of business, allegedly, in part, because of a flood of milk from giant factory farms that had been allowed to operate illegally.

"I have invested my life in building this dairy farm," said Kevin Poetker, a dairy producer from Waterloo, Missouri who has now lost his market for organic milk.  "Now my entire livelihood and the financial future of my family is at risk."

"For many family-scale farmers, who face financial ruin, this is a legitimate emergency and we need the Obama administration to step in immediately," appealed Cornucopia's Kastel.

Cornucopia is calling on the USDA to aggressively enforce federal organic regulations that would control abuses occurring in the organic dairy sector. Enforcement has been spotty, at best, at the USDA.  A number of legal complaints filed by Cornucopia documenting alleged violations of organic law on industrial scale dairies, and other improprieties, were never investigated by the Department.

Farmers and other industry stakeholders can still make their personal appeal to president Obama and USDA secretary Vilsack by downloading a proxy-letter from the "action alerts" section of the Cornucopia Institute's website: www.cornucopia.org     


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