The growth of the organic industry relies on continued consumer confidence that the organic label is backed up by an assurance of adherence to the organic production and handling standards. To ensure that organic farmers and handlers are meeting organic requirements, organic certifiers conduct annual inspections, unannounced inspections, residue testing, and market surveillance. In addition to these enforcement mechanisms, complaints from the general public serve an important role in identifying potential violations of the organic standards.
When a business or individual identifies a potential violation of organic requirements, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) stands at the ready to receive and investigate any complaint. From October 2015 to September 2016, NOP received 499 complaints and completed investigations on 357 alleged violations of the organic standards, levying approximately $2.2 million in civil penalties.
NOP dedicates a number of its staff for this purpose, and solicits the assistance of organic certifiers in the investigations when warranted. Submitting a complaint to NOP is as simple as sending an e-mail to NOPCompliance@ams.usda.gov. However, the information and documentation one includes in the complaint can dramatically affect NOP’s ability to successfully investigate and correct the violation should it determine one is occurring.
What does USDA need?
Organic violations can range widely from a non-certified operation using the “O” word (Organic) on its package to a certified operation willfully representing conventional product as organic. Regardless of the seriousness of the suspected violation, it is challenging to investigate these complaints without adequate information.
In the case of suspected labeling violations, it is useful to collect information pertaining to the product’s lot numbers, best by date, or other unique identifier, where it was purchased, and an actual copy of the label in the marketplace. NOP can review this information, determine if the operation is currently certified, and take appropriate action to correct the labeling violation. These investigations ensure consistency on organic packaging and ensure that consumers know what they’re getting in the marketplace. But what about more egregious violations when someone suspects fraud is occurring?
If fraud is suspected, the documentation collected and submitted to NOP’s compliance division becomes critically important.
Recent cases of alleged organic violations have resulted in criminal convictions, and the success of those investigations hinged partially on the completeness of information submitted to NOP by the complainant.
The general public does not usually have the exposure to documents that could raise concerns about fraud, so complaints of this nature will often originate from businesses directly engaged in the organic supply chain.
Organic companies are required to demonstrate to their certifier that all the ingredients they’re using in their products are, in fact, certified organic. Examples of the specific documentation they must collect include organic supplier certificates, transportation receipts or bills of lading, clean out records for bulk transportation, import certificates for foreign sourced ingredients, and purchase invoices from their suppliers. Without this information, the traceability of organic ingredients is called into question, and the operation is out of compliance.
When fraudulent activity is suspected, it is important to remember that all organic companies must be able to demonstrate this level of traceability for their organic products, incoming and outgoing. Evidence of any gap in this supply chain should be included in a complaint to NOP.
Inconsistencies in required supply chain verification, especially for imported organic products, can pose a challenge, however, for companies looking to file an actionable complaint with NOP. For example, organic products originating from countries with whom the United States has equivalency agreements or arrangements (like the European Union) must be accompanied by an import certificate issued by an EU accredited certifier that declares each operation that grew, handled, and exported the ingredient. This information allows investigations to go straight back to the source of the ingredient should wrongdoing be suspected.
For ingredients sourced from countries outside of these equivalency arrangements, the companies exporting the supplies must be certified by a USDA accredited certifier. However, the import documentation is not required to declare the full supply chain that preceded the exporter. This lack of information obviously makes investigations more challenging.
NOP has indicated it will engage in rulemaking in early 2017 to implement a consistent import documentation requirement for all organic products coming into the United States. This will allow more transparency in supply chains, increased ability for NOP to investigate fraud allegations, and heightened assurance for consumers that all the organic products they purchase—from apples to açai berries—are in fact certified organic.
Complaints from the general public and organic businesses assist USDA in its mandate to ensure integrity in the organic label. Robust investigations of these complaints help to fine tune minor violations and weed out fraudulent actors.
We rely on organic certifiers’ inspection and testing activities to keep farmers and handlers in compliance with organic requirements. When individuals find ways around the rules, the complaint process is an effective way to clean the organic house. The successful investigation of these complaints, however, depends on collecting and submitting enough information appropriate to the specific supply chain in question. //
What information should I provide?
When you report a suspected violation, provide as much information as possible (who, what, when and where) to help ensure a thorough investigation. Provide details:
- Explain the violation (when and where)
- Identify brand name & manufacturer
- Other useful information about the operation
- Certifying agent
- Product lot numbers or other identifying information
- Product package or copy of the label.
Submit to: NOPCompliance@ams.usda.gov
Complaints can be received anonymously. However, if you are willing to discuss the issue further and wish to be notified when the case is closed, you should also provide your name and contact information. The identity of anyone filing a complaint is kept confidential by USDA.