The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program in Washington recently released an updated report of its five-year audit of accredited organic certification firms, which had initially caused a stir among the media.
The report showed that 14 Accredited Certifying Agents had their accreditation renewed, while 14 others were listed as “renewal pending subsequent audit.” According to the report, those listed under this category were not subject to any adverse reaction by the NOP, and subsequent audits will be scheduled to take place within the next 12 months.
Examples of non-compliance included issuance of Transitional Organic Certificates, lack of verification of a client's system plant, wrongly labeled product and lack of production records.
Media reports this summer, however, used words such as “fraud” and “probation” to describe those certifying agents targeted for second audits.
Regardless, the NOP and the Organic Trade Association insist that no one has in fact been put on probation or had their certification authority revoked. Both organizations maintain that this process is one of continual improvement for the ACAs.
“It's in the process to have certification agencies that are credited have continuous improvement — that's the whole thing about the NOP and how the standards have been set up,” explained Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.
“So basically, they're undergoing the audit and basically being told they need to sharpen this or that, and that's part of the continuous improvement method.”
The USDA NOP report agreed.
“Keep in mind that this is the first accreditation renewal process that certifying agents have undergone — it's a learning process that can only make the program stronger,” the report said.
According to a report published by the Organic Consumers Association, Jim Riddle, organic agriculture coordinator at the University of Minnesota and former chair of the National Organic Standards Board, questioned why the NOP released a report when the audits have yet to be completed.
“It's strange to me that the USDA has published information about audits that are still in process,” he said in the report. “Such a report could be easily misleading or misinterpreted.”
Although it appears that the NOP's report was misinterpreted to some extent, OTA said it believes publishing the report serves to keep the public informed.