USDA OIG Reviews Implementation of Access to Pasture and Related Rules for Organic Dairy Cattle

August 6, 2013

By Riëtte van Laack

The Organic Foods Production Act requires that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) establish national standards for the production and handling of organic products to assure that agricultural products marketed as organic meet consistent uniform standards.  USDA established the National Organic Program (“NOP”) to develop, implement and administer the national standards.  Among others, NOP developed standards for organic certification of dairy herds including the origin of livestock requirements describing how conventional cattle can be transitioned to organic dairy cattle and the access to pasture rule.  The most recent USDA Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) audit report focuses on organic milk operations’ implementation of the access to pasture rule.  The access to pasture rules became effective June 17, 2010, and was to be fully implemented by June 17, 2011.  Thus, at the time of the audit, the industry had barely two years of experience with this rule.

OIG’s audit included interview of NOP personnel in Washington DC, 25 organic milking operations in California, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and 6 of the top certifying agents in each of these states.  The selection of the states and certifying agents was partially based on the number of certified organic milk operations in these States and partially the result of an effort to reduce costs.  Nevertheless, OIG believes that the sample provides a reasonable basis for its conclusions.

Although overall OIG found that the NOP has implemented the access to pasture rule successfully, it identified several issues that need to be addressed.

Among others, OIG concluded that certifying agents’ oversight of compliance with NOP regulation leaves room for improvement.  Apparently, both the certifying agents and the certified organic operations do not always interpret the rules correctly.  Furthermore, because of lack of clarity by NOP, when the certifying agents did identify a non-compliance, they did not take consistent enforcement actions.

OIG also identified inconsistency in certifying agents’ interpretation of conditions under which operations can transition non-organic dairy cows into organic production.  Apparently, some agents allow producers to add non-organic cows to their existing herds three months before calving, whereas others do not allow this practice.  Since this practice has a significant economic advantage, this apparent discrepancy between certifying agents could lead to dairy producers shopping for certifying agents.

OIG also identified a need for better oversight of organic feed brokers.  Currently, organic feed brokers are exempt from certification.  As a result, there is no guarantee that organic feed is not commingled with non-organic feed or contaminated.  This causes uncertainty about the “organic integrity” of the system.

NOP agreed to all OIG’s recommendations.  Based on its response, NOP plans to issue various documents in the next year, including:

  • A proposed rule related to origin of livestock in March 2014;
  • A final guidance concerning certification for handling unpackaged products which will address the issue of organic feed brokers;
  • An updated Enforcement Instruction with a penalty matrix for certifying agents to properly classify noncompliance issues and associated enforcement actions identified during inspection by December 2013; and
  • An updated Records and Recordkeeping Instruction to clarify recording keeping requirements related to access to pasture rule by December 2013.