What exactly is organic food? USDA wants to make sure everyone follows the rules

In the world of food, the word organic remains vague, and the rules a bit loose. Now the Agriculture Department has proposed new rules to tighten up the product...

In the world of food, the word organic remains vague, and the rules a bit loose. Now the Agriculture Department has proposed new rules to tighten up the production and handling of food sold as organic. To hear some details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Dr. Jennifer Tucker, the Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And just review for us what exactly is organic in the context of agricultural and the USDA fair labeling and selling?

Jennifer Tucker So organic food production really emphasizes natural processes and ingredients from farm to table. So working in concert with the environment to create our food. No genetic engineering is allowed. The food is grown in a way that supports soil health and water quality and biodiversity and only allowed ingredients are used in processing. So again, working with the environment to produce the food we eat.

Tom Temin So that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. And there are guidelines, more than guidelines, there are rules that food producers, handlers, retailers must follow if they’re going to stick that word organic on there, correct?

Jennifer Tucker Absolutely. There is a very detailed set of public regulations that govern how organic food and processing is done. And those regulatory standards can be read by anyone online to really understand what goes into the organic food they choose to buy.

Tom Temin And there is an enforcement mechanism, correct? And how does that work? I mean, how do you possibly get everywhere that you need to get to?

Jennifer Tucker Organic operates as a kind of public-private partnership, where the USDA accredits third party organizations. They’ll go out to every organic farm and business every single year and inspect what’s happening on the farm or in the business to make sure that they are complying with those public standards that I just talked about. And they do pesticide residue testing, all sorts of activities on a farm to make sure that those rules are being followed. And it’s a level playing field for everyone who engages in the process.

Tom Temin Do you get the sense that this is a growing thing in the United States? Because all you hear about now are these different farm to table organizations where people buy a share and they go to the farmer’s market or a truck pulls up to a church parking lot and you pick out your turnips and your apples and your vegetables and stuff. That seems to be growing. More people are doing this, aren’t they?

Jennifer Tucker Organic is growing as a market in both size and complexity. So for more than ten years, organic sales in the United States have continued to rise, and the number of certified organic farms and businesses around the world has continued to grow.

Tom Temin All right. So now the Agriculture Department has proposed new rules, not so much for the labeling, but for really what I would call the supply chain from the grower to the handler. And I guess something can come in in handling and distribution that can render something contrary to the rules for organic.

Jennifer Tucker As the world changes and businesses expand into new areas, regulations need to change with it. So organic is really a very important part of the U.S. food system. It has been growing and expanding in complexity because consumers value and are buying organic products. So we have recently updated our rules simply to reflect the growing complexity and size of market to make sure that we can trace organic products from the shelf right back to the farm where it was originally grown.

Tom Temin Well, what do the new rules do that’s different? What can a grower expect? What can a distributor expect? What are you hoping for here?

Jennifer Tucker So when the organic rules were originally put in place almost 20 years ago, supply chains were shorter. We’ve all learned a lot about supply chains over the past few years, and organic is no different. Those supply chains have grown longer. Right now, the rules do allow some people along that supply chain, so for example commodity brokers, to not be certified, so not be covered by one of those third party certifiers that I mentioned before, this rule requires all of those businesses to be certified so that we can very quickly find our way back from a product back again to the farm. So it increases the robustness of that traceability so that we can catch bad actors fast in the system. Any time there’s an opportunity to make money, there are also going to be bad guys who choose to enter the field. And so more traceability from farm to market will help us stop any fraud in the system before it happens.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dr. Jennifer Tucker. She is administrator of the National Organic Program at the Agriculture Department. And so the new rules will require more people to become certified, that is, that are not required to be certified. Now, will it change anything for people that have already been certified? Say at the producer or the seller level?

Jennifer Tucker Some businesses will need to make changes in their recordkeeping system to provide all of the support for that traceability. Another new requirement that’s very important will be the requirement for what are called import certificates. So any USDA certified product or any product that is overseen by another government with an organic program, all of those products will need to be identified with the import certificates. And so over the last couple of years, we work very closely with Customs and Border Protection to maximize the use of existing import systems to better identify and be able to trace organic products. So that’s a new requirement that will be a big help in protecting imports coming in from around the world.

Tom Temin Because one of the requirements has to do with labeling of non-retail containers, that is the container, say, on the ship that comes from another country or in some kind of a crate on a truck. Right.

Jennifer Tucker Right. So many of us like to eat, for example, organic fruits and vegetables. And if you’re in the winter in New England, it can be hard to come by. And so we do rely on imports to help provide those organic fruits and vegetables that we like to eat. And those do come in those large non-retail containers. So huge containers of grapes, for example, or berries coming over the border. We need to know where they’re coming from and we need to be able to trace it back to the farm to make sure that all of those organic practices were followed to protect soil health and biodiversity and all those other climate smart attributes that define organic.

Tom Temin And we should point out, if people really like to get into the weeds section by section of the rules, you have published a side by side before and after PDF there. It’s online. That’s pretty good. We won’t go into some of the really deep arcana here. But one other question I had too, are you hoping that this will improve the safety of organic food? Because food that does not benefit from the most potent pesticides, for example, could potentially have bugs or some disease on it, that even though it’s organic, it could be actually dangerous? Is this part of the equation here?

Jennifer Tucker So organic food follows the same food safety protocols as other food sold in the United States. We’re talking about a method of production and processing here that emphasizes natural processes, but that certainly doesn’t remove all the food safety practices that are overseen by other agencies in the federal family.

Tom Temin But it sounds like this expands the idea of organic so it’s not necessarily farm to table. There’s not a hay laden wooden old flatbed truck that was carrying picked potatoes right to the farmers market. I mean, there’s processing, there’s distribution, there’s repackaging. There’s a lot of those things that you get with non organic food. And it sounds like you’re making sure that they’re all in line with the two endpoints, so to speak.

Jennifer Tucker Absolutely. It’s really important that those organic potatoes, for example, be transported and processed in a way that doesn’t introduce ingredients that are not allowed under the organic program and that there isn’t what we call co-mingling or mixing of organic product and non-organic product. When consumers choose that organic option, they are choosing a product that is produced using organic methods, and our job is to protect that choice.

Tom Temin Will there be new labeling requirements at some point?

Jennifer Tucker The labeling that the customer sees will remain the same. There are more labeling requirements related to, for example, paperwork of very clearly identifying product on invoices and other records as organic to help with that traceability. And we mentioned those non-retail containers to make sure that everyone handling that product along the supply chain understands that they’re working with organic products and understands what that means.

Tom Temin And what is the status of the rule now. How long do people have to comment? What’s the calendar for this?

Jennifer Tucker So the rule is final now. It went through a long period of proposed rule and public comment. We got great feedback from many, many organizations and people involved in organic trade as well as consumer groups. So the rule was published in January. We are now in what’s called an implementation period where businesses have time to update their systems to match the requirements of the rule. It will be fully implemented, which means we will start enforcing the new provisions next March. Now, we’ve been enforcing the seal all along, we’ll simply be adding on the enforcement of these new requirements starting next March.


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