Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy

Reform and Consumer Consciousness Buoy US Organic Sector

Received wisdom suggests sales of organic food would struggle during the recession, and this has been borne out by figures from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in the US. But while growth slowed, it did not peter out altogether, and that resilience is not the only thing giving the US organic sector cause for optimism.

The arrival of Kathleen Merrigan as deputy secretary at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Miles McEvoy's appointment last year as deputy administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP), which administers organic certification in the US, have both been greeted enthusiastically by organic advocates. Both have extensive experience and knowledge of the organic field.

Indeed, there has been a marked rise in commitment to organic under the Obama administration. The NOP's budget has increased from US$3.9m to $6.9m for the current fiscal year, while its workforce is set to rise from 16 to 31. The administration is planning to raise the budget to $10m in the coming fiscal year and increase its staff to around 40 employees.

Presidential support has not only come in the form of budgetary and personnel changes. The move to plant an organic garden at the White House last year gave the movement the kind of boost money can't buy.

The announcement of a clarification on the rules on the pasturing of organic cattle has gone a long way to meeting long-standing concerns from campaigners. In a similar vein, the USDA moved recently to review a decision allowing the use of artificial additives, namely ARA and DHA, in baby formula marketed as organic.

The increased budget and scrutiny could not have come too soon. In March, a USDA report detailed shortcomings at the NOP on issues such as spot testing, oversight of organic operations overseas and the vetting of independent certifying agents, as well as a lack of urgency in investigating companies fraudulently marketing products as organic.

McEvoy said that enforcing testing rules was among a number of improvements already in hand, stating that there was a "real commitment from this administration to improve the integrity of this programme".

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