For many, a new year means a new resolution to eat healthier. As shoppers walk the isles of the supermarket scanning for new ways to improve their diet, inevitably a few items in the cart are replaced by healthier options which bear USDA Certified Organic Labels. After all, organic must be better for you, and must meet higher standards than “regular” grocery store foods, right?
While this assumption is correct in theory, the reality is something less uniform and reliable. For a product to be labeled “USDA Certified Organic” it must be “certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances (such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticide) applied for three years prior to harvest.” As for meats, the animals must have been raised in living conditions “accommodating their natural behaviors, fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.”
For both produce and animals, these USDA standards have been the source of major issues with the organic label and its legitimacy. By limiting the standards of “organic” to solely the producing of fruits, vegetables, and meats, supposedly organic foods are only checked at the start of the supply chain before receiving the label. The reality, however, is many foods marketed as organic go through many inorganic processes before reaching the shelves of the grocery store.
To remedy this issue, the USDA passed the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) Rule on January 18, 2023 in a bid to “protect organic integrity and bolster farmer and consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal.” Stemming back to the 2018 Farm Bill, the SOE seeks to more closely regulate the whole organic supply chain in a bid to reduce organics fraud. Now published, the SOE Rule will require new certification for roughly 1,000 domestic businesses. As for previously Certified Organic Operations, the SOE adds additional requirements for label information and new certificate requirements for all imported organic products. Despite this increase in regulation, American organic farmers like those in the Organic Farmers Association see the SOE Rule as a long overdue step to improve the “integrity of the organic label and the economic viability of organic farms that rely on consumer trust in that label.”
With these new organic regulations in force, growers and policymakers now turn their attention to the 2023 Farm Bill in a bid to strengthen the sector. As a summary, the farm bill is “an omnibus, multiyear law that governs an array of agricultural and food programs.” Every 4-5 years, the farm bill is updated to accommodate new initiatives, regulations, and priorities for the USDA and agricultural industries. The last farm bill, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, laid the foundation for new sustainability and organic goals by charging the USDA to “limit the type of organic operations that are excluded from certification.” The bill also amended funding for multiple organic research organizations and addressed concerns regarding the authenticity of organic imports.
Given this heightened focus on improving the organic sector in the previous farm bill, coupled with the introduction of the SOE Rule, it is anticipated that the new 2023 Bill will further the improvement of organic regulation, funding, and research under the umbrella of sustainability. Organic farming has long been touted as a solution to mitigating the harmful effects caused by more traditional forms of agriculture, and amending organic farming in the farm bill could fit nicely with many sustainability initiatives for the 2023 version. Additionally, organizations like the Organic Trade Association (OTA) are calling for the 2023 farm bill to improve organic standards and enforcement (like the SOE Rule does), as well as improve funding for growing technologies. OTA also sees the 2023 bill as an opportunity to bolster the organic’s supply chain, a possibility aided by the SOE Rule’s increased regulation of handlers of organic foods between farm and shelf.
Congress has until September to finalize the 2023 Farm Bill and will be hosting several hearings between now and then. As a largely bipartisan bill, the 2023 edition could mark a substantial step in the growth of the organic’s sector, and the SOE Rule will likely lead the charge in making that happen. In the meantime, growers can rely on the new rule to improve consumer’s reliance on the USDA Certified Organic label and add enforcement to a growing field in agriculture.
Joe Whalley is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelors in Science in Agribusiness from the University of Georgia. This summer, he will join the summer associate class at Mayer Brown in Charlotte, NC. Upon graduation, he intends to practice financial, real estate, and intellectual property law.
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