USDA organic rules are changing. Is the food industry ready?

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Food Dive

By Lydia Noyes, March 14, 2024

Organic labeled vegetables are for sale at a grocery store in Chicago.

Organic labeled vegetables are for sale at a grocery store in Chicago. Scott Olson via Getty Images

The most significant change to organic certification is nearly here. But some experts worry that many food companies are unprepared.


As the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares to launch its Strengthening Organic Enforcement regulations March 19, some wonder if unprepared companies will get left behind.

The new rule is the most significant change to organic certification since the program’s start in 1990, and there’s growing concern that large portions of the food industry — importers, brokers, handlers and distributors — haven’t made the necessary compliance changes.

Nate Ensrud shares this fear. As an executive with FoodChain ID, one of the largest organic certifiers in the U.S., he’s noticed little action across the industry to meet SOE’s changes.

Here’s why that’s a problem and how the industry can rise to the challenge.


What’s changing
Over the past three decades, the growth of the organic industry has out-scaled its initial regulations.That’s led to gaps in enforcement that allowed for loopholes and outright fraud.

“The SOE rule is part of USDA’s continuous improvement of the organic standards to meet the growing complexity of food supply chains,” said a spokesperson for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

“SOE closes gaps in the current regulations by making sure USDA can more completely oversee and enforce the supply chain that takes a certified organic product from farm to market,” the spokesperson added. “We are closing loopholes specifically in the certification process by requiring organic certification of more businesses in the supply chain, like brokers and traders that were not previously required to be certified. This better protects the USDA organic seal and keeps fraud out of the market.”


Problems with non-compliance

Just days away from the deadline, Ensrud believes that non-compliance is inevitable — and it will be disruptive.

“Unfortunately, over the last few months, the net change in USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic operations in the U.S. was essentially zero,” Ensrud said “That means there are thousands of companies, foreign and domestic, in the organic food supply chain that will need new certification.”

He believes that companies out of compliance will feel the pinch in a bevy of ways.

“Here’s one example,” Ensrud said. “Suppose a manufacturer of organic breakfast cereals finds that a handler of organic raisins in their supply chain hasn’t pursued certification in light of SOE. Now the manufacturer must find a replacement, and it might suffer production disruption in the meantime.”


What can the food industry do to prepare?
Ensrud believes the most significant issue remains a need for more information.

“Some organic suppliers are still unaware of the March 19 compliance requirements. Because importers, exporters, brokers, traders, and storage facilities have not historically been required to be certified, we believe there will be an increase in last-minute organic certification applications.”

Ensrud is working to get the word out to avoid this pileup. “We’re reaching out to our customers with the message ‘protect your supply chain.’ We recommend that organizations look at all suppliers on their supply chain and reach out to them to ensure they are aware of the new regulations and, if they need to apply for certification, to do so immediately.”

As a starting point, he suggests that businesses perform self-assessments to gain insight into whether their operations require certification under the new regulations. “FoodChain ID provides a quick starting point, and companies can also schedule a quick consultation with our organic certification experts here.”

While the certification process seems overwhelming at the start, engaging with food certification or compliance companies offers a supportive way to meet the deadline without an interruption in the supply chain.


Food Dive

By Lydia Noyes, link to story: