Federal Organic Regulators Discover a Novel Concept -- Enforcement

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 11:43 AM EDT

To the list of things that were barely regulated during the Bush years -- subprime mortgages, Wall Street, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts -- add a new category: organic foods. In an interview with The Washington Post, Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of agriculture, offers up a surprisingly candid admission of what organic purists have suspected all along -- that for the past nine years, the USDA regulators charged with ensuring that organic food is really organic have been asleep at the switch.

Of course, that's not the language that Merrigan, a pioneer who helped create organic standards in the first place, uses. Here's what she said:

I left a pretty long to-do list when we published the final rule [at the end of the Clinton administration]. Case in point: pasture. . . . What does it mean when we say "access to pasture," for ruminants, particularly dairy cows? . . . Well, that was on the list when I left in 2001. . . . There were a lot of things on that to-do list. I inherited that list right back.
A perfectly intact to-do list. From a soft spoken government regulator, that's a smack down. Calling her reign the "age of enforcement," Merrigan reports that the USDA's National Organic Program has already started cracking the whip to make sure the third-party organizations that certify the organic food we eat are actually doing their jobs. (Many of them aren't). Another action: Requiring companies to test for pesticide residues. That hasn't been done, either.

Asked what happened to organics during the Bush administration -- a lack of resources? too friendly to big organic producers? -- Merrigan replies with a curt, "I assume it was not a priority."

The interview follows a report last month from the USDA inspector general that found the National Organic Program has done a horrendous job of monitoring organic food. Rules were bent. Regulators sat on confirmed instances of companies illegally selling non-organic food as organic for months and even years. Complaints the agency received were lost. And the agency had no way of knowing whether as many as 1,500 foreign producers of supposedly organic food were in compliance with the standards.

The report makes for truly depressing reading for anyone that's been forking over extra cash for organic food in hopes that the USDA seal means something. But the truth is that both the report and Merrigan's "age of enforcement" are good news for people who care about organic food. Because, after an administration that ranked the enforcement of organic standards somewhere between cutting the military budget and legalizing marijuana, it's clear that Obama isn't afraid of a little regulation.

Image from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathleen_Merrigan