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November 30, 2023
Both new applications and requests for exemptions have been flooding in as the organic industry faces a March deadline to comply with new federal standards for certification.
But Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, cautions that very few exemptions will be allowed as the agency moves to correct inconsistencies in the way organic goods are handled throughout the supply chain.
Beginning March 19, 2024, industry sectors that are currently exempt will need certification to continue selling and distributing organic goods. Those include:
Importers, regardless of packaging
Traders of organic products
Private label owners, unless products are in sealed and tamper evident retail packaging
Storage facilities, unless products are in sealed, tamper-proof packaging
The rule is intended to instill confidence in organic products and minimize fraud throughout the industry, California Certified Organic Farmers explains. Once the deadline passes, friendly reminders to businesses from the USDA will give way to warning letters and potential fines for noncompliance, Tucker said.
“It is very broad on purpose,” Tucker told more than 100 industry representatives during the Organic Grower Summit Nov. 29 in Monterey, Calif. “It is understood that products are better protected when everyone is certified. The rule has very few exemptions.”
The NOP is doing outreach to regulated sectors, doing weekly webinars with different associations and offering online resources to prepare producers for the ramped-up requirements, she said.
“I think we’re getting the word out based on the number of emails I’m getting,” Tucker said. “This rule has been a long time coming and was widely supported.”
Bianca Kaprielian, the founder and CEO of Reedley, Calif.-based Fruit World, said chatter about the new rule has increased as the year has progressed. The tamper-proof packaging requirement has been a top concern, she told the conference.
“We’re really struggling to get larger and mid-sized retailers on board,” Kaprielian said, adding that gaining certification isn’t difficult but it’s costly. “Retailers have really put a lot of that burden back on growers.
“I believe in this rule,” she said, “but here’s the world that we live in.”
Tucker and Kaprielian were part of a panel that opened the sixth annual organic summit, sponsored by the Organic Produce Network and Western Growers. They were joined by April Vasquez, Chief Certification Officer for CCOF, and Meredith Kiser, Compliance Director at Heath & Lejeune.
The discussion was moderated by John Foster, chief operating officer at Wolf & Associates and a former member of the National Organic Standards Board.
Foster and others in the organic industry say the SOE is the most significant change since regulations were implemented 20 years ago. Called for in the 2018 Farm Bill, the rule focuses on improving farm-to-market traceability, increasing import oversight authority, and providing robust enforcement, according to USDA.
Key updates include:
Requiring certification of more of the businesses, like brokers and traders, at critical links in organic supply chains.
Requiring NOP Import Certificates for all organic imports.
Requiring organic identification on nonretail containers.
Increasing authority for more rigorous on-site inspections of certified operations.
Requiring uniform qualification and training standards for organic inspectors and certifying agent personnel.
Requires standardized certificates of organic operation.
Requires additional and more frequent reporting of data on certified operations.
Creates authority for more robust recordkeeping, traceability practices, and fraud prevention procedures.
Specifies certification requirements for producer groups.
The rule may affect USDA-accredited certifying agents; organic inspectors; certified organic operations; operations considering organic certification; businesses that import or trade organic products; and retailers that sell organic products, the USDA explains.
With the deadline looming, the market is flooded with certification requests – and people looking for loopholes, Vasquez said.
“110 days seems like a long time,” Foster said. “You can get a crop on the ground in 110 days. But regulations take longer.”
With only about 60 business days to go, anyone who hasn’t started the certification process will have a hard time making the deadline, Foster said.
“If the wheels aren’t going now, it’s going to be very difficult for a new operator,” he said.
The summit concludes today, Nov. 30, at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa.
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