Qualifications of organic food certifiers questioned

WASHINGTON, DC, August 6, 2004 (ENS): The Center for Food Safety is questioning the qualifications and background of the agents permitted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to certify foods as organic - and is doing so in federal court.

The Washington, DC group filed a lawsuit against the USDA Thursday seeking the release of documents detailing the qualifications and background of the organic food certifiers that agency allows to participate in the national organic food program.

Certification of organic farms is the fundamental enforcement mechanism of national organic food standards behind the USDA "Organic" label.

Since 2000, the number of organic certifying agents has risen from 49 to over 120. "This unexpected increase in the number of accreditation applicants raises troubling questions about possible 'sham' certifiers and the USDA's ability to properly assess the qualifications of the large volume of new certifiers seeking accreditation," the Center says.

In an effort to ensure that USDA is not allowing "sham" certifiers into the organic program, in June of 2002, the Center for Food Safety filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all USDA documents used in reviewing the application of certifiers to participate in the program. But the USDA has refused to provide CFS with the documents without charge, so the group has taken its request for a waiver of the copying fees to court.

The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to waive fees for the requested documents if the requester can show that “disclosure of the information is in the public interest," the Center argues.

"USDA's failure to release these documents threatens the integrity of the organic label," said Joseph Mendelson, CFS legal director. "The decision on who is to certify organic produce needs to be in full view of the public, where it cannot be influenced by large corporate interests."

"The refusal to provide these records is another step in the Bush administration's attempt to cut the public out of the debate concerning organic foods," said Mendelson. "Consumers and organic producers want to ensure that use of the organic label adheres to a high standard."


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