USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan wrote to the National Organic Coalition on July 29, after the organic alliance had urged the department to undergo an outside review of NOP practices in order to strengthen public confidence in the program.
Merrigan wrote: “Third-party recognition is important for many of USDA’s audit-based programs. We understand the value of this step as we continue working to strengthen the integrity of the NOP and to build the organic community’s trust in the program.”
The audit will assess the NOP’s more than 100 private certifiers to ensure that the USDA is adhering to strict international standards for accrediting them and overseeing their work. It will be carried out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and is due to begin on October 1.
The audit is expected to take several months and the National Organic Coalition anticipates that the NOP will have to make several changes in order to qualify under NIST’s National Voluntary Conformity Assessment Systems Evaluation.
National Organic Coalition policy coordinator Liana Hoodes said: "We anticipate that the potential changes NOP will make to earn NIST recognition will result in greater consistency and integrity in USDA organic standards, greater fairness to organic farmers and handlers, and greater consumer confidence in the USDA organic label."
She told FoodNavigator-USA.com: “The USDA started this program when they weren’t well versed about what organic processes are. They need to ask questions like ‘Do each of the employees have organic expertise?’; ‘Do they all operate under the same procedure manual?’”
Questioning USDA organic
The NOP was developed to facilitate domestic and international marketing of agricultural products that are organically produced and to assure consumers that such products meet consistent, uniform standards. But the value of the program has been called into question several times – including by the National Organic Coalition, which has previously accused it of having “a history of issuing inconsistent, secretive, and poorly justified interpretations of USDA organic standards and regulations.”
Hoodes said: "We think the USDA and the entire Obama Administration have sent a clear message that maintaining and improving the integrity of the organic industry is a national priority, and that the USDA will continue to build a trusting alliance with the broader organic community as the NOP grows and matures.”
The organic sector in the US is forecast to experience “slowing but steady growth” of 19 percent to 2013, according to market research organization Mintel.