On January 18, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) released details of the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) final rule. The rule, which goes into effect on March 20, 2023, boosts enforcement of USDA’s definition of “organic,” which must rely on “natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
The new rule is the biggest update to USDA organic regulations since the original act in 1990 and offers stronger organic control systems, improves farm-to-market traceability, increases import oversight authority, and provides robust enforcement of the organic regulations, according to the agency. “Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA organic seal is a key part of the USDA Food Systems Transformation initiative,” says Jenny Lester Moffitt, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs for USDA. “[The rule] provides a significant increase in oversight and enforcement authority to reinforce the trust of consumers, farmers, and those transitioning to organic production. This success is another demonstration that USDA fully stands behind the organic brand.”
Among the key updates provided in the rule are:
- Requiring certification of more businesses, such as brokers and traders, at critical links in organic supply chains;
- Requiring NOP Import Certificates for all organic imports;
- Requiring organic identification on nonretail containers;
- Increasing authority for more rigorous on-site inspections of certified operations;
- Requiring uniform qualification and training standards for organic inspectors and certifying agent personnel; and
- Creating an authority for more robust record keeping, traceability practices, and fraud prevention procedures.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA), which lobbied for the rule, is pleased with the updated regulations. “This will fundamentally strengthen the oversight and enforcement of organic production worldwide,” a spokesperson for OTA tells Food Quality & Safety. “Specifically, it mandates that more players involved in the sale and handling of organic products—like brokers, traders, storage facilities of unsealed products, importers and exporters—obtain certification and creates better oversight to prevent and detect fraud by requiring import certificates for all organic products entering the U.S.”
Although most organic operations are already compliant with the provisions in the new rule, there have been some bad actors; the rule raises the bar to monitor these operations at every step in the supply chain.
“Consumer trust is paramount to the organic label,” the OTA spokesperson says. “The new regulations will ensure ongoing consumer confidence in organic as the only federally enforced eco-label when looking for healthy, climate-friendly, and sustainable choices. This rule will make sure all high-risk links in the supply chain are certified. We encourage operations no matter where they are in the supply chain to look one step down, one step up, and at any third parties that handle their products to evaluate if any of their partners were previously exempt but now require certification.”
Organic operations, certifying agents, and other organic stakeholders affected by the rule will have until March 19, 2024, to implement the changes.