Organic foods

USDA Scraps Efforts to Establish Organic Check-off Program

USDA’s Agricultural Market Service (AMS) on May 11 announced the termination of a proposed rule to establish a national research and promotion program for certified organic products. The Organic Check-off program was proposed three years ago by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which would have administered the program under USDA’s supervision.

USDA said the decision to terminate the program was based on the lack of consensus within the industry in support for the proposed program and divergent views on how to resolve issues in implementing the proposed program. Termination of the rulemaking process removes communication restrictions and allows USDA to engage fully with all interested parties to discuss and consider the future needs of the industry.

Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director, OTA, said USDA’s action to terminate the rulemaking process to establish a national research and promotion program for organic reflects a pattern of holding back forward progress on organic by USDA.

“The $50 billion organic sector offers opportunities for U.S. organic farmers and businesses. It makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at the knees,” she said, calling for USDA to lean closer to the consumer and support choice, transparency and opportunity.

“If there was ever a need for an organic check-off, it is now. We are seeing organic dairy and egg sales flattening because of USDA’s failure to move the animal welfare rule forward,” Batcha continued. “Organic research funding is uncertain because it is tied to the unpredictable fate of the Farm Bill. The government also has interfered with the strong role of the National Organic Standards Board. These actions hurt U.S. organic farmers and businesses.”

Some concerns USDA took into consideration were the impact of “de minimis” level exemptions and high-value commodities on the program, how organic promotion would affect other agricultural commodities, the voting methodology that would be used, the financial burden on small entities and the challenges of tracing imported organic products. Additional concerns were the method of assessment for imports, the assessment of non-food products and products “made with (specified ingredients)” and the paperwork burden on covered entities.

“This announcement comes within days of a smiley face GMO disclosure logo, which is bound to cause confusion for consumers and reveals that USDA is not being even-handed. There is no question we need promotion for organic as consumers continue to demand food transparency,” she added.

USDA first published the proposed rule on Jan. 18, 2017 with a 60-day comment period that ended March 20, 2017. The comment period was extended to April 19, 2017. While USDA said the decision to scrap plans for the program was based on the review of more than 14,700 comments filed by producers and other stakeholders, OTA stated USDA’s assertion that there is “uncertain industry support for and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program” is simply wrong.

“It is unfathomable that organic stakeholders will not be given the chance to cast their vote, and to decide for themselves if they want to implement an organic check-off,” Batcha said. “USDA unilaterally making the decision on behalf of the 26,000+ certified organic growers, ranchers, processors, handlers, and business owners to not advance the process is stunning.”

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