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USDA sued over secrecy of organic agriculture records

(Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Center for Food Safety news release:
Washington, DC – In order to address the growing threat to the integrity of national organic food standards, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit seeks release of documents detailing the qualifications and background of the organic food certifiers that it allows to participate in the national organic food program.

Appropriate certification of organic farms is the fundamental enforcement mechanism of organic food standards. Fueling public concern over a reduction in the integrity of the new “organic” label is the appearance of numerous new, previously unknown certifying agents applying to the USDA for accreditation. Since 2000, the number of organic certifying agents has jumped 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.

Recent accounts of inconsistent and potentially illegal clarifications on organic standards from the USDA calls into question whether the agency is adequately reviewing and scrutinizing all organic certifying agents it has allowed into the national organic program. In an effort to ensure that USDA is not allowing “sham” certifiers into the organic program, in June of 2002, CFS filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all USDA documents used in reviewing the application of certifiers to participate in the program. For over two years the USDA has stonewalled and refused to provide CFS with the documents.

“USDA’s failure to release these documents threatens the integrity of the “organic” label,” stated 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,” continued Mendelson.

“Consumers and organic producers want to ensure that use of the organic label adheres to a high standard,” Mendelson concluded.

Joe Mendelson, Center for Food Safety, (202) 547-9359