The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently appointed Dr. Jennifer Tucker as the Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Dr. Tucker served as Associate Deputy Administrator of the NOP since 2011 and takes the helm from Ruihong Gou who became the acting Deputy Administrator after Miles McEvoy left last fall.
OPN sat down with Dr. Tucker to congratulate her on the appointment and get her perspective on the job responsibilities and the road ahead.
Dr. Jennifer Tucker as the Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program
OPN Connect: You have witnessed a lot in the last seven years at NOP. How have those years prepared you for this moment?
“Over the last seven years, I have connected with so many hard-working and deeply devoted farmers and organic stakeholders – all with a steadfast commitment to protecting the integrity of the organic seal. It is these people – and the amazing team here at the National Organic Program – who have really prepared me for this role.
Understanding the history, unpacking the policy complexities, building new tools, and improving processes that impact customer service and consumer confidence – all of these moments have prepared me to serve the community in this new way. I am tremendously optimistic about our future work together.”
OPN Connect: You have a strong understanding of the organic laws and regulations. How will this help you facilitate constructive dialogue with the various viewpoints within the organic community?
“Our job at USDA is to facilitate an open policy process, to make sure organic certification is fair and consistent, and to enforce the rules on the books. The Organic Foods Production Act and the USDA organic regulations are the framework that connects everyone in the organic community. The rules are strong and transparent, and are built using a robust public process.
For me, dialogue is most constructive when we listen to each other openly, assume best intentions, and accept that there are many perspectives. Not everyone will agree on every detail, but we can continue to work together and support the common framework behind the USDA Organic label.”
OPN Connect: What are the biggest objectives you hope to tackle, now and in the future?
“Right now, we are focused on implementing the improvements to enforcement practices outlined in our May 2018 Enforcement Plan of Action. We are also developing the Strengthening Organic Enforcement Proposed Rule. We recently held a very well attended virtual town hall where we heard a lot good input to inform the rule and other enhancements to the program. This is a great example of where USDA has recognized a clear need for rulemaking that will keep the playing field level across the organic industry.
As this work unfolds, I will be keeping a particular eye on three areas that all support the value of the USDA Organic label and the trust that American families have in certification.
First, USDA and our certifiers have to be sure our on-the-ground inspectors and reviewers have the qualifications, training and tools to effectively assess compliance – at operations large and small around the world.
CCOF Certification Services, LLC staff with NOP Associate Deputy Administrator Jennifer Tucker. From left to right: Jody Biergiel Colclough, Amber Pool, Jake Lewin, Jennifer Tucker, Sarah Reed, April Crittenden, and Jamie Carr.
Second, we need to be sure our certifiers and inspectors are at the right places at the right time to deter fraud. We have a great enforcement framework and the Sound and Sensible principles have helped us improve customer service. We are working more closely with agencies who have inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. We are at a point now that we can take the next step and integrate risk assessment into oversight and enforcement processes.
To support everything we do, I will continue the emphasis on using data and technology to increase our capacity for oversight and service delivery. My goal is to constantly improve confidence in the organic label from farm to market to the table.”
OPN Connect: What are the biggest opportunities you see for the organic community?
“We have a great shared opportunity to unite against fraud. Nothing unites quite as much as a common enemy – and our common enemy is the set of bad actors who are hurting organic farms and businesses by breaking the rules. Organic farmers and businesses, buyers, retailers and certifiers are all in this together – and we have a tremendous opportunity to create a united and strong community with a common goal of insuring the reliability of our system.”
OPN Connect: If you were the Queen of the Organic world, what changes would you make?
“The organic community is filled with leaders and emerging leaders who have a myriad of experience and perspectives. For some it’s a job, for others it’s a way of life. For all of us, their leadership is important. They are the ones shaping and embracing the accountability needed to protect the USDA Organic label and meeting the consumer demand for organic products in this increasingly complex supply chain.
Team NOP is here to support their work and to bring our unique enforcement power to bear when the rules of our collective “kingdom” have been broken – from farm to table. I look forward to the continued work of protecting it together.”