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Open Letter to USDA--Stop the Assault on Group Certification for Small Farmers in the Developing World

To: Mike Johanns, Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue SW Room 200A
Washington, DC 20250

Secretary Johanns:

The National Organic Coalition and the additional under-signed concerned organizations and individuals, wish to bring to your urgent attention our strong concerns regarding a recent announcement of the National Organic Program (NOP) policy regarding the potential for organic certification of Grower Groups (GGC).

At the outset, we would like to commend the NOP on taking necessary steps towards enforcement of USDA standards throughout the world in order to ensure the integrity of the organic label worldwide. However, we have concerns that a recent decision pertaining to an individual entity announces a fundamental shift of policy at USDA/NOP regarding the inspections and certification of Grower Groups.

Historically, certification agents have widely and successfully implemented GGCs for over a decade, as a method of providing access to the organic market for farmers from developing countries who have very limited financial resources. Products successfully certified organic under the GGC system include nearly all of the organic coffee and much of cocoa, teas, bananas, spices, as well as many other products. The retail market value of coffee alone is estimated to be between $200-300 million USD. Chocolate and sugar together are conservatively estimated to be similar, with a combined estimated retail value of coffee, chocolate, and sugar equaling $400 ­ 600 million USD.

The GGC system was designed and created before the existence of USDA National Organic Program and it is practiced under many international certification programs. GGC systems are recognized around the world in world-wide markets. Since 2002, the NOP has accredited organic certification agencies, many of whom certify grower groups. The NOP has accredited these agencies with full knowledge and approval of the GGC systems. The National Organic Standards Board proposed a guidance policy to address this issue in 2002, and the practice of certifying grower groups has, in fact, continued by USDA-accredited organic certification agencies without further clarification from the NOP since implementation of the USDA regulations in 2002.

The Grower Group Certification model has been utilized for farmers in developing countries who have very limited financial resources and is limited to farmers who have formed associations, cooperatives or other democratically organized groups. To qualify for certification as a Grower Group, the farmers must create an internal certification control system (ICS) which ensures that the entire group, as well as each participating farmer, complies with organic certification requirements. The purpose of this system is to aid those farmers who cannot afford individual certification, thus providing a valid export access for these farmers, often for the very first time. At the same time, the ICS seeks to provide consistent oversight for the group to verify compliance with strict organic standards and therefore preserve consumer confidence. Organic accreditors and certifiers must ensure that these ICS systems are fully functioning.

There appears to be some conflict with this type of practice and the existing NOP regulation, as interpreted by USDA (see USDA/NOP Adverse Action: Denial of certification, Appeal RULING: October 27, 2006). In this case, USDA denied certification of a Mexican operation due to noncompliance issues, and further stated that: "The ruling established that use of an internal inspection system as a proxy for mandatory on-site inspections of each production unit by the certifying agent is not permitted."

Since this decision could have very significant economic impact on some of the world's smallest and most vulnerable farmers, affect major US food industry buyers, and deny consumers access to numerous organic products, we urge the USDA to proceed carefully with any policy decisions only after considering alternatives and consulting in thoughtful and timely discussions with the wide range of potentially impacted stakeholders and program participants.

A critical first step toward making significant policy determinations like the USDA's statement on GGC must include a public and transparent process. Further, the procedures for considering and taking action on such policies should be fully documented using the standard practices related to management of a Quality System for an accreditation agency. Given the fact that NOP does not have a Quality System in place, it is not surprising that problems have frequently arisen when NOP has made or revised policies related to its accreditation system.

We ask that any ruling on the eligibility of Grower Groups be delayed until NOP institutes a full-fledged Quality System consistent with the mandate at 7 CFR 205.509, which requires that the NOP comply with ISO/IEC Guide 61 (now revised and renumbered as ISO 17011, "Conformity Assessment­General Requirements for Accreditation Bodies Accrediting Conformity Assessment Bodies").."

In our view, compliance with this international norm will greatly improve the current method of making changes in accreditation requirements, as §8.2.4. of ISO 17011 requires accreditation bodies to "give due notice of any changes to its requirements for accreditation and take account of views expressed by interested parties before deciding on the precise form and effective date of the changes." In addition, this international standard provides detailed and comprehensive requirements for management of accreditation bodies.

Following the NOP's consultation with stakeholders, the National Organic Standards Board, and legal counsel, we fully support a very transparent and participatory process to develop further action with regard to GGC. This process should start with the comprehensive evaluation of the NOSB 2002 recommendations. The recommendations will need greater scrutiny and clarification to be widely accepted, but they serve as the appropriate beginning point for discussions. [Please see attached NOP statement and NOSB recommendations.].

Finally, and most urgently, USDA/NOP must ensure continued access to the US market for the current legitimately-certified and accredited GGC organic products in the stream of commerce while this problem is resolved. USDA should, of course proceed to fully audit, provide appropriate oversight and ensure confidence of all USDA accredited certifiers who are certifying fully functional and legitimate GGC systems

We look forward to your immediate response and to the positive resolution of this very timely and urgent matter,


National Organic Coalition,
Rural Advancement Foundation International -- USA,
Beyond Pesticides,
Center for Food Safety
Food & Water Watch,
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association,
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services,
National Cooperative Grocers Association,
Northeast Organic Farming Association -Interstate Policy Council,
Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance,
Organic Consumers Association,
Union of Concerned Scientists

For a copy of this letter with its attachments: USDA/NOP

Recent Decision: or go to the USDA website:

NOSB 2002 Grower Group Recommendation:

More Information on the National Organic Coalition: