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USDA's Q3 organic investigation referrals soar


According to Sustainable Food News 

August 3, 2017

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday reported 91 referrals of investigations in the third quarter, far exceeding the total posted in all of FY2016 and FY2015.

The agency's National Organic Program (NOP) said in its third quarter (April 1-June 30) enforcement report that it received 67 complaints and completed 196 complaint reviews and investigations, putting the total number of FY2017 complaints received at 252 and the number of complaints closed at 265.

The NOP's enforcement report for FY2016 showed it received 499 complaints and completed 357 complaint reviews and investigations. For all of FY15, the NOP received 549 complaints and completed 390.

Miles McEvoy, NOP deputy administrator, said at the National Organic Standards Board's (NOSB) biannual meeting in Denver in April that the complaints process "is not a sustainable system."

The NOP also received 12 appeals during the third quarter, and issued:

  • 7 orders to cease and desist representing agricultural products as organic
  • 39 notices of warning, which typically concern minor violations that have been corrected and advise businesses of penalties that may result from future violation

So far in FY2017, the NOP has issued 13 cease and desist orders, 68 notices of warning, and 109 investigation referrals (which includes the 91 from Q3) to accredited certifying agents, other federal agencies, state programs and international trading partners.

For all of FY2016, the NOP issued 31 cease and desist orders, 111 notices of warning, and 58 investigation referrals. Those numbers are similar to FY2015 enforcement results, which showed 36 cease and desist orders, 121 notices of warning, and 64 investigation referrals.

For the first time, the NOP is reporting the number of suspended and revoked organic certificates. So far in FY2017, a total of 181 operations had their organic certificates suspended, with 56 of those in the third quarter.

Eleven operations have had their organic certificates revoked in FY2017, including seven in the third quarter. The highest profile operation to lose its organic certification was Beyaz Agro, a certified organic grain and oilseed exporter based in Turkey, which was at the center of an NOP investigation of 36 million pounds of soybean shipments to the United States from Turkey late last year. Read more here.

Last month, the NOP warned the organic food industry of 11 fraudulent organic certificates circulating in the marketplace. The NOP has reported 78 fake organic certificates since 2011, and 32 since April.

FY2017 settlement agreements

The NOP said it reached 12 settlement agreements and levied $56,500 in civil penalties in the third quarter, for a total of $139,750 in penalties for FY2017. In the first quarter, the NOP reached five settlements in the second quarter and eight settlements in the second quarter.

During FY2016, which ended Sept. 30, the NOP reached 19 settlement agreements, levying $397,750 in civil penalties. The amount of civil penalties was reduced from $947,250 levied in the first three quarters of FY2016 as part of settlement agreements. For all of FY2015, the agency reached 13 settlement agreements with eight resulting in $1.9 million in civil penalties.

Typically, settlements are reached as alternatives to administrative proceedings that may result in suspension or revocation of organic certification or accreditation, as well as civil penalties for the knowing sale of products that violate organic regulations.

However, not all settlement agreements include civil penalties and not all civil penalties were levied via settlement agreements. The amount of civil penalties initially levied may change during negotiation of settlements and individual penalty payments may be outstanding, the NOP said.

For instance, a USDA Administrative Law Judge entered a consent decision on April 1 regarding the sale of agricultural products as organic without certification by Yorgo Foods, Inc. of Manchester, N.H. Per the decision, Yorgo agreed to a three-year suspension of its organic certification and a civil penalty of $880,000, with $540,000 held in abeyance, provided it complies with USDA organic regulations during the period of suspension.

Read more about the NOP's first quarter and second quarter enforcement actions.

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