Nebraska farmers plead guilty to marketing non-organic grain as certified organic
A high-profile case of organic fraud found three Nebraska farmers pleading guilty to marketing non-organic corn and soybeans as certified organic, according to the Associated Press.
The case involved Overton, Neb., farmers Tom Brennan, his son James Brennan, and a family friend, Michael Potter. The AP reported that each of the three will plead guilty to one count of wire fraud. The three conspired with the owner of an Iowa-based company to sell the fraudulent grain.
This fraud, said Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator for the National Organic Program, is the exception rather than the rule. While she is unable to comment on pending litigation, Tucker said the program has completed a comprehensive review of the pending caseload, and are confident that any open case with verified violations is being actively worked on by a NOP specialist or has been referred to another partner, such as other federal agencies or other governments, for investigation.
Some of these cases, Tucker said, involve complex supply chains and many parties may be involved at different stages. Building strong cases with deep evidence and providing due process to all parties are vital parts of any federal investigation.
“This takes time,” she said.
Tucker said the USDA has added staff, improved the intake process, utilized new technology tools and built strong partnerships with other members of the federal enforcement family.
“Working together with farmers, ranchers, certifiers, consumers and other stakeholders, we will continue to ensure the USDA Organic Seal remains the gold standard,” she said.
According to the USDA, becoming a certified organic operation can cost from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Even with cost-sharing programs available, the five-step process is lengthy and includes a 36-month transition period before the producer may market certified organic goods.
Once an operation has adopted organic practices and hired a USDA-accredited certifying agent, the producer’s application must be reviewed to ensure that the practices comply with USDA organic regulations. An on-site inspection is completed and followed by a review and report before an organic certification may be issued.
The USDA has a number of enforcements in place to prevent and enforce organic certifiers ranging from annual inspections to unannounced compliance inspections to investigating alleged violations on behalf of the USDA. Operations with violations can enter settlement agreements to correct violations and bring the operation into full compliance but may have their organic certification suspended or revoked. The National Organic Program investigates complaints annually and may levy financial penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.
According to the NOP, there are about 2,400 operations in the United States and abroad that have either suspended or revoked certifications that are unable to sell, label or represent their products as organically produced or handled.
Another tool the NOP utilizes is the Organic Integrity Database, a searchable list of certifiers and the associated accreditation documents.
According to the recently released Organic Oversight and Enforcement Summary of Activities and Overview Action Plan, the organic industry’s strength depends upon a strong organic control system, farm to market traceability and robust enforcement. Doing so, according to the report, results in a level playing field.
The results of this robust enforcement were noted in the surrendering of certificates by operations in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey comprising about 13 percent of organic operations in those countries. Since 2016, an additional 30 operations in those countries have either surrendered or had their certification revoked by certifiers.
Trade data in the report tells a similar tale as the quantity of organic corn imports from Turkey declined 35 percent and organic soybean imports declined 15 percent during the increased enforcement actions from 2016 to 2017.
In terms of traceability, a number of practice changes are slated for 2018 including defining how electronic import and export certificates are used for products crossing the U.S. border, increasing collaboration, improving data quality and exploring new technology.
It is the sum of these parts, according to the report, that ensures the integrity of organic products and take rigorous enforcement actions to deter fraud. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.