Organic sales up, but OTA seeks regulatory revisions
Sales of organic products in 2018 hit a record $52.5 billion, up 6.3 percent from the previous year, but the Organic Trade Association is seeking to maintain and improve organic integrity with changes in regulation, Laura Batcha, OTA executive director, said in a briefing last week.
Organic food sales reached $47.9 billion, for an increase of 5.9 percent, and sales of organic non-food products jumped by 10.6 percent to $4.6 billion, according to the Organic Industry Survey. The growth rate for organic continued to easily outpace the general market: In 2018, total food sales in the U.S. edged up just 2.3 percent while total non-food sales rose 3.7 percent, OTA said.
Despite the sales growth, critics within the industry and the media have questioned the integrity of organic products, which are certified by the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Program.
At the press briefing in relationship to OTA’s annual meeting, Batcha noted that, after media reports that some imported organic feed intended for animals whose meat would be sold as organic was not really organic, USDA investigated and has decertified 60 percent of the organic farms in the Black Sea region.
“It is a level of oversight we haven’t seen before,” Batcha said. She noted that U.S. organic grain farmers “are psyched” because they had been competing with cheaper imports. She said she has not gotten reports from organic meat producers that they are short of feed.
NOP officials have told her that they have learned a lot from this investigation and will apply those lessons to investigations in other parts of the world that export organic feed and food to the United States, Batcha said.
OTA is pushing the Trump administration to issue a final rule on the origin of livestock and also encouraging Congress to use the 2020 agriculture appropriations bill to require USDA to issue the rule, Batcha said.
After reaching the conclusion that the National Organic Standards Board, which advises USDA on organic rules, reached consensus on 20 recommendations in the past 10 years on which USDA did not act, OTA is urging Congress to take action to force USDA to take up the recommendations.
USDA should not be so reluctant to consider the recommendations because the organic program is voluntary, Batcha said. But she also acknowledged that if USDA adopts additional regulations, companies must comply with them for their products to get the organic seal.
Batcha said she considers the NOP to be “a voluntary mandatory program. You don’t have to be organic, but if you want to be organic you have to follow the rules.”
Batcha said that USDA needs to consider new proposals for organic regulation.
“We can’t thrive over the next decade with a standard chiseled in stone that won’t change,” she said.
Some other organic groups that believe the USDA regulations are not strict enough are proposing private labels in addition to the USDA seal.
OTA doesn’t oppose those labels, “but our primary focus as a trade organization is to fix what we can with the federal program,” Batcha said.
Consumer trust in the USDA organic seal “is what got us to the $50 billion,” Batcha said. “No private wrap-around seal will ever have enforcement like NOP.” ❖