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Import Controls for Organic Agricultural Products Need Strengthening, USDA Says

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

More work is needed to ensure that imports of organic agricultural products meet U.S. requirements to be classified as such, according to a recent report from the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General. This report reviewed the processes used in determining whether exporting countries’ organic standards are equivalent to those of the U.S. as well as the compliance of imported products with USDA organic standards.

Equivalency. According to the report, the Agricultural Marketing Service’s process for determining the equivalency of organic standards lacks transparency and OIG was unable to determine whether identified differences between foreign and U.S. standards were resolved in such a way that the equivalence determinations were justified. OIG believes that National Organic Program officials should be able to track and document the final outcome of all identified differences on a single document that would be made available to the public. AMS plans to develop and implement such a procedure by July 2018.

Verification. AMS has taken some actions to reduce the risk of non-organic products entering the organic market; e.g., drafting a proposed rule to require import certificates for all organic imports and requiring NOP import certificates to accompany organic imports as part of the equivalency arrangements with the European Union, Japan, Korea, and Switzerland. However, the report states, AMS was unable to provide reasonable assurance that import certificates were reviewed at U.S. ports of entry to verify that imports labeled as organic met the associated requirements.

OIG acknowledges that AMS does not have the regulatory authority to establish and implement controls at ports of entry but notes that it could have worked with other agencies on ways to review and verify the authenticity of organic import certificates. OIG therefore recommends that AMS (a) enter into a memorandum of understanding with U.S. Customs and Border Protection for assistance in reviewing import certificates (which AMS hopes to do by July 2018 if it can resolve CBP’s concerns about its authority and capacity to assist), (b) request that CBP update the Automated Commercial Environment partner government agency message set to provide CBP officials with instructions for reviewing NOP import certificates at ports of entry and helping NOP officials to ensure that import certificates are uploaded to ACE (which AMS also plans to do by July 2018), and (c) develop and implement a plan to collect and utilize the data on the import certificate (e.g., product description, approving certifier, and volume of product shipped) to track organic imports and identify fraudulent certificates (AMS plans to complete by July 2018 a needs assessment that would form a baseline for future technology development work as resources become available).

Treatment. OIG states that AMS needs to do more to ensure that organic products treated at U.S. ports of entry with NOP-prohibited substances to prevent the entry of prohibited pests are not sold, labeled, or represented as organic. OIG recommends that AMS (a) ask CBP to update the ACE message sets to notify USDA inspectors of steps to take in case of such treatment, and (b) develop and implement a plan for creating and implementing procedures to track treated products.

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