FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Mark A. Kastel 608-625-2042
Obama: Please Fix the USDA’s Organic Mess
Overhaul of Management and Culture
Appointment of Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary: First Sign of
Cornucopia, WI –
President Obama and new USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack are
being urged to take immediate action to repair the USDA’s increasingly
dysfunctional National Organic Program (NOP). Suspect imports of grains,
nuts, and vegetables from China
and other countries, questionable organic milk, beef, and eggs from giant
factory farms, and the erosion of opportunity for family farmers are plaguing
the organic sector.
Consumer demand for organic production has skyrocketed
in recent years, propelling organics into an over $20 billion dollar a year
business. That same hunger for organics has encouraged some large
corporations, factory farms, and foreign producers to move into the U.S.
organic business—but without upholding federal organic production standards.
February 12, The Cornucopia Institute, a national organic watchdog representing
family famers, sent a formal letter and briefing paper to President Obama and
Secretary Vilsack specifically asking that they take “a very strong and
proactive posture in turning around management at the National Organic Program,”
which they described as being “Katrina-ed” by the Bush
stewardship of the organic program at the USDA has been an absolute
Mark A. Kastel,
Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst. “It was not just
management by neglect—it was an intentional monkeywrenching of the
Department's oversight of the industry.”
In the last several
prepared by the American National Standards Institute and
the Inspector General's office have blasted the NOP for failing to ensure that
independent certification agencies, which verify organic farming and production
practices, are competent and properly performing their jobs. A
Peer Review Panel—fundamental
to ensuring competent certification—has never been established.
Panels, crucial to the evaluation of specific materials and ingredients used in
organic food and agriculture, remain underfunded or unused.
dozens of policy resolutions adopted by the National Organic Standards Board,
the expert citizen advisory panel to the NOP, have never been reviewed or
In addition to
starving the organic program for adequate funding, the political environment at
the USDA has always been hostile to the industry,
During the Bush
administration political appointees at the USDA had also significantly softened
penalties for organic lawbreakers, overruling stiff enforcement actions
recommended by career civil servants, for factory farms that were found
willfully violating federal organic standards. Other complaints detailing
abuses on factory farms were quashed or went uninvestigated.
If organic food production and eating had
not caught on so well, we wouldn't see these scofflaws doing their
thing,” observed Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock farmer from
former member of the National Organic Standards Board. Clark
added, “It’s time to change the culture at the USDA.”
The Cornucopia Institute has
launched a “Change@USDA”
campaign and is helping stakeholders in the organic community to unite for
rehabilitation of the NOP. The farm group intends to hand-deliver letters
to both Mr. Obama and Secretary Vilsack from farmers and consumers supporting a
sweeping management shakeup at the National Organic Program.
the first sign that the new administration at the USDA is taking the concerns
of organic and sustainable farming interests to heart, yesterday [on February
23], Secretary Vilsack announced the appointment of Dr. Kathleen
Merrigan, a Tufts University assistant professor, as USDA Deputy
Secretary. “I cannot think of a more qualified public policy expert
to take on this important role at what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the
‘people's department, ’” Kastel affirmed. The
Cornucopia Institute, and many other farm organizations, lobbied hard for
Merrigan's appointment. “I hope this is representative of President
Obama and Secretary Vilsack subscribing to the old adage that, ‘good
government equals good politics,’” he added.
with sectors of the organic industry in crisis, stakeholders are hoping the new
appointees at the USDA take swift action. “The certified organic
label belongs to the thousands of ethical organic family farmers, and their
consumer allies and patrons, who have built the vibrant organic agricultural
and food market,” said Peter Wiesner, General Manager at the Hungry
Hollow Co-op in Chestnut Ridge, New York. “We need new management
at the National Organic Program if we are to reclaim the organic label,”
questions swirl around the handling of organics by the NOP, a true crisis is
unfolding in the organic dairy sector. Ethical organic dairy farmers, and
the co-ops and family-owned businesses they partner with for processing and
marketing, are getting hammered by cheap, phony "organic" milk from
giant factory farms and alleged predatory pricing by the $11 billion
agribusiness behemoth, Dean Foods.
Foods, owner of 50 different milk brands including the nation’s leading organic
dairy label, Horizon Organic, has heavily discounted their retail pricing,
driving down market prices for all competitors. Dean/Horizon gets a large
percentage of their milk from their 8000-cow industrial dairy and from many
other mega-farms they contract with.
majority of the bogus private-label, or store-brand, milk (which is usually
cheaper than branded organic milk) marketed by Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway,
Target, and other grocery chains comes from the controversial Aurora Dairy,
operator of five giant factory farms in Texas and Colorado.
unethical competitors are squeezing and undercutting other brands and the
family farms that supply them,” stated Cornucopia’s Kastel.
Kastel added that “Stonyfield, Organic
Valley, and other smaller
markers have had to let some of their family farmers go and/or cut prices paid
Despite their rhetoric supporting family farmers,
Dean/Horizon has used strong-arm tactics in attempting to terminate ties with
some of its farmers—this, sadly, as the company continues to expand its
use of industrial-scale dairy operations.
Don Halverson, a family-scale organic dairy farmer
near Rupert, Idaho, recently saw Dean refuse to buy his
milk. “We thought we were dealing with ethical people,” said
Halverson, who milks about 50 cows. “My family and I hitched our
wagon's future to the commitments we received from the Horizon folks.” His
family now faces financial ruin without a market for his organic milk.
is calling on the USDA to enforce federal organic regulations that would
control abuses occurring in the organic dairy sector. Enforcement has
been spotty, at best, at the USDA. A number of legal complaints filed by
Cornucopia documenting alleged violations of organic law on factory dairies were
never investigated by the Agency.
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: More specifics on Cornucopia’s CHANGE@USDA
campaign can be found at this
link or under the
action alerts tab
graphic images available include: Change@USDA button (in color or black and
white), Cornucopia logo, a head shot of Mr. Kastel and photos of "organic"
factory farms or, as a juxtaposition, beautiful grass-based organic dairies.