ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

USDA's Merrigan on Organic Standards: "The honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth"

In an interview with Organic Processing magazine, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made extensive comments on the national organic program, regulations and the state of the industry. Here are some excerpts.

...In terms of enforcement, the integrity of the organic label is fundamental to the growth of this industry. If consumers don’t have confidence in the label, industry growth will stall—it’s just that simple. It’s not a matter of expanding standards, but making sure the standards we have are enforced. I understand that it takes a while for standards to really sink in and for people to fully understand the rules of the game.

But, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth; that we mean them and if people are not adhering to the standards, they’re going to be kicked out of the program. It will take staff work and it will take eyes out in the field because the USDA can’t be everywhere all the time. Part of our enforcement program has to be based on whistle blowing within the industry itself.

OP: What other challenges do you see for organic? Do you have suggestions about ways in which the industry will be able to meet these?

Merrigan: I’m going to tell you what I think the biggest challenge is—and I know I’m like a broken record on this, or a broken CD or iPhone—but the point is that the biggest challenge the organic community faces is internal. It is about not letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”; not to self-destruct by pointing accusing fingers at each other.

There’s definitely a need for whistle blowing on enforcement issues, but I think this community sometimes explodes issues unnecessarily on the front pages of the newspapers, which leads to consumer confusion and erosion in belief for the organic label. People need to keep their eyes on the prize and think of this as a long-term haul and to just be really cautious before they throw bombs. (Emphasis added).

OP: How do you think the Obama administration is going to help support organic growth, and what opportunities do you see for organic now that there’s finally support from Washington?

Merrigan: President Obama and the First Lady are deeply interested in healthy food choices and are particularly concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country.

More than ever, they are going to bring visibility to the issues of healthy eating. That presents those of us working at USDA with great opportunities, as well as great opportunities for those in the organic community.