Who Is Certifying Organic Foods?

I understand that there’s trouble brewing for certification of organic foods and that the U.S. Agriculture Department is being sued. What’s the trouble?

– October 19, 2004

We don’t know for sure that there’s anything wrong with the certification of organic foods, but a nonprofit organization, the Center for Food Safety (CFS), is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for failing to release information about an unexpectedly large number of certifiers participating in the National Organic Program.

CFS has expressed concern about the increase in the number of certifiers from 49 to 120 since 2000. The organization has raised questions about whether the additional certifiers really are needed or have been added just to deal with certain products and are, in effect, "sham" certifiers. "Our suspicions are that there are certifiers popping up just to certify a couple (of) products, to standards that aren’t as stringent as the program is written," said Joe Mendelson, legal director for CFS. "Nobody besides the USDA really knows what the accreditation process really is," he added. "The decision on who is to certify organic produce needs to be in full view of the public where it cannot be influenced by large corporate interests."

CFS’s claim, filed in U.S. District Court on Aug. 9, 2004, describes the organization’s attempts on at least eight occasions to obtain the information on the certifiers under the Freedom of Information Act. CFS also seeks a waiver of the heavy USDA fees associated with research and copying the information it seeks. The claim further outlines USDA’s denial of the requested fee waiver and its lack of response on each of those occasions. In its complaint CFS said that USDA responded to the group’s most recent request by saying that providing the information sought would not contribute to public understanding of the certification process. Mendelson said that by "using the fee waiver to delay and prevent giving us the (requested) documents," the USDA is attempting to cut the public out of the debate. "This type of attitude sends a very poor message," he added. "This program should be a model for consistency of information to consumers."

The USDA already has tried to soften organic standards, a move that was rescinded in response to public outcry. The CFS suit seems to be a valid attempt to ensure that USDA keeps all its cards on the table as it administers the National Organic Standards Act. I’ll keep you posted on developments as they occur.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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