WASHINGTON — The Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture on Aug. 5 published in the Federal Register a proposed rule to expand the National Organic Program’s oversight and enforcement of the production, handling and sale of organic food products.

“Organic agriculture is one of the fastest growing sectors in the food market,” said Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs. “As the organic market has grown, organic supply chains have become more complex. Stronger market oversight is needed to protect farmers and consumers who choose the organic option.”

The proposed rule responded to long-standing organic industry requests for the National Organic Program to adopt more robust measures to thwart fraud. The booming market for organic food products (valued at $55.1 billion in 2019), the price premium accorded to organic foods and gaps in USDA oversight have attracted unscrupulous players seeking to pass non-organically grown food as organic. For example, five men were convicted in 2019 for crimes connected to the sale of $142 million in grain sales in Missouri, most fraudulently claiming to be organic. Such fraud compromises consumer confidence in the USDA’s organic label.

“If implemented, this proposed rule will improve organic integrity across the organic supply chain and benefit stakeholders throughout the organic industry,” the AMS said in the Federal Register notice. “The proposed amendments will close gaps in the current regulations to build consistent certification practices to deter and detect organic fraud and improve transparency and product traceability. In addition, the proposed amendments will assure consumers that organic products meet a robust, consistent standard and reinforce the value of the organic label.”

The AMS said the proposed rule would reduce the types of uncertified entities in the organic supply chain that operate without USDA oversight — including importers, brokers and traders of organic products. The restrictions will safeguard organic product integrity and improve traceability, according to the agency.

The proposed rule would require the use of NOP Import Certificates, or equivalent data, for all organic products entering the United States. The rule also would clarify the NOP’s authority to oversee certification activities, including the authority to act against an agent or office of a certifying agent, and included several discretionary actions to further strengthen enforcement of the organic regulations.

The actions include clarifying the labeling of nonretail containers used to ship or store organic products. The AMS said requiring additional information on nonretail containers clearly will identify organic products, reduce the mishandling of organic products, and support traceability.

The proposed rule would specify the minimum number of unannounced inspections of certified operations that must be conducted annually by accredited certifying agents, and the rule would establish specific qualification and training requirements for certifying agent personnel.

It would clarify conditions for establishing, evaluating and, if need be, terminating equivalence determinations with foreign government organic programs, based on an evaluation of their organic foreign conformity systems. This would ensure imported products meet US organic standards.

The proposed rule could clarify requirements to strengthen and streamline enforcement processes, specifically noting that the NOP may initiate enforcement action against any violator of the Organic Foods Production Act.

It would specify certification requirements for grower group operations, to provide consistent, enforceable standards and ensure compliance with the USDA organic regulations. It would clarify the method of calculating the percentage of organic ingredients in a multi-ingredient product to promote consistent interpretation and application of the regulation.

And it would require certified operations and certifying agents to develop improved recordkeeping, organic fraud prevention, and trace-back audit processes. Information sharing between certifying agents and documented organic fraud prevention procedures also will be required.

“This historic rulemaking will do much to protect organic from fraud through tougher enforcement and oversight, as our program (Organic Fraud Prevent Solutions) helps organic companies put into place on-the-ground systems to deter and prevent fraud,” said Laura Batcha, chief executive officer and executive director of the Organic Trade Association.

The AMS requested public comment on the proposed rule be submitted by Oct. 5 at www.regulations.gov.

“Some of the key parts of the rule that the (organic) community will want to comment on is that the proposed rule is going to increase the types of businesses that need to be certified,” said Jennifer Tucker, the NOP administrator. “Ultimately, fraud is unacceptable, and this rule is going to make it a lot harder to cheat the system.”