As the production of raw commodities migrates to other corners of the world, U.S. agriculture continues to search for ways of adding value to what farmers produce. Preserving and certifying the identity of crops for their desirable attributes are two of the best ways of adding value in an information-based economy. A case in point is the astounding growth of the organic industry. Today the "organic" label is valued for not only care in production, but also for quality and variety.
Next week, the USDA will implement national organic standards. It's a milestone for the industry. But, the new standards are arriving in the company of a new controversy.
To receive a U-S-D-A certified organic label products must be cleared by U-S-D-A accredited entities. Fifty-eight accreditations have been issued so far, mostly to organic certifiers familiar to the organic industry. But, organic producers claim there are some entities they have never head of and are concerned about the existence of sham operations that will certify anything. Furthermore, legal action has been taken because the government never set up a peer review panel to oversee the accreditation process.
Andrew Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety: "There's nothing more important than deciding who is going to be out there certifying that this product is actually organic and that it actually meets the standards. It is the crux of the integrity of the entire standard. That's why it is mandated, this is not discretionary with the agency, the words are shall, that the agency shall establish such a peer review panel in order to ensure this transparency, in order to ensure that the public has complete access to see who was certified the qualifications of those certifiers, where they are and what they're doing. This we have been completely denied."
According to those who filed the petition, an oversight panel would help prevent frauds from the certification process. A closer look at the National Organic Program shows the legal issue could simply be a matter of semantics and interpretation, though according to the petitioners the agriculture department committed itself in other regulations as well. The U-S-D-A has refused to comment on the pleading.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal end of this matter, there has been strong support for the peer review panel on a number of fronts. Organic groups, the U-S-D-A advisory committee known as the National Organic Standards Board, and others, view a peer review panel as the best way to implement and maintain the National Organic Program standards.