Organic food is big business in the U.S. – sales of organic products topped $61 billion in 2022 – and the certified organic label fetches a premium price for producers. So much so that fraud from both domestic and imported sources had become a major concern among organic industry business owners, investors and advocates.
That’s why such leading organizations as the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and others applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when, earlier this year, the agency announced the Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) final rule, which is set to be fully implemented and enforced in March 2024.
Representing the biggest change to organic regulations since the passage of the Organic Food Production Act in 1990, the SOE Rule was created to crack down on organic fraud. The new 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,” Jenny Lester Moffitt, USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, said in a statement.
“The rule closes gaps in current organic regulations and builds consistent certification practices to prevent fraud and improve the transparency and traceability of organic products. Fraud in the organic system – wherever it occurs – harms the entire organic sector and shakes the trust of consumers in organic. This regulation will have significant and far-reaching impacts on the organic sector and will do much to deter and detect organic fraud and protect organic integrity throughout the supply chain,” OTA said in support of the new rule.
Liz Figueredo, Quality and Regulatory Director at organic certifier Quality Assurance International (QAI), based in San Diego, California, told Nutritional Outlook in July 2023 that the new SOE Rule closes supply chain loopholes that existed in previous regulations. The new rule requires organic certification for all parts of the supply chain, including handlers and suppliers who were previously exempt, she said.
“This means that certifiers can no longer depend on documentation from uncertified handlers, which was often lacking, to verify the organic status of products. The rule also includes fraud-reduction techniques, such as requiring an Import Certificate for any organic ingredients or products imported into the U.S., which provides the total volume or weight of the imported products,” Figueredo said.
Who Is Affected by the New SOE Rule?
According to USDA, the SOE Rule may affect USDA-accredited certifying agencies; organic inspectors; certified organic operations; handlers of organic products; operations considering organic certification; businesses that import or trade organic products; retailers that sell organic products; and organic supply chain participants who are not currently certified organic.
Exemptions are limited to a few low-risk activities such as very small operations; certain retail establishments that do not process; storage and warehouse facilities that only handle products in sealed, tamper-proof containers or packages; distributors that only handle final retail-packaged products; and customs and logistics brokers that do not take ownership or physical possession of organic products.
However, exempt operations must still follow all other applicable portions of organic regulations, including co-mingling and contamination prevention, labeling requirements and record keeping. Transporters that only move organic products between certified operations, or transload between modes of transportation, do not need to be individually certified, but are the responsibility of the certified operation that loads or receives the product.
To see if your business is affected and for more information, visit the full text of USDA’s SOE Rule in the Federal Register. OTA, too, has a resource page with extensive information regarding preparing for full compliance with the SOE Rule, along with exclusive training materials for association members. OTA also offers a questionnaire for businesses that may not be sure if they need certification.
What Does the SOE Rule Do?
According to USDA, “SOE protects organic integrity and bolsters farmer and consumer confidence in the USDA organic seal by supporting strong organic control systems, improving farm to market traceability, increasing import oversight authority, and providing robust enforcement of the organic regulations.”
Key updates include:
“SOE complements and supports the many actions that USDA takes to protect the organic label, including the registration of the USDA organic seal trademark with the USPTO. The registered trademark provides authority to deter uncertified entities from falsely using the seal, which together with this new rule provides additional layers of protection to the USDA organic seal,” USDA said.
For producers wanting to learn more about navigating and adhering to these new requirements, the Western Growers Association in partnership with the Organic Produce Network will host a session at its upcoming Organic Grower Summit, November 29th and 30th, 2023, in Monterey, California, entitled “The SOE Deadline Looms–Are You Ready?” The seminar is designed to help growers better understand the upcoming rule changes, which will affect producers, distributors, handlers and importers.
In addition, organic industry and policy veterans Gwendolyn Wyard and Kim Dietz recently founded Strengthening Organic Systems, an advisory firm focused on helping businesses with organic fraud prevention, supply chain investigations and compliance with USDA’s organic anti-fraud regulations.
How Will USDA’s Organic Regulation Changes Affect the Food and Nutraceutical Industries? – Nutritional Outlook
USDA Launches Organic Integrity Database Module – Organic Insider
Tighter Rules Now in Effect for USDA Organic Seal of Approval – Cosmetics and Toiletries News
Strengthening Organic Enforcement USDA Rule – California Certified Organic Farmers
Steven Hoffman is Managing Director of Compass Natural, providing public relations, brand marketing, social media, and strategic business development services to natural, organic, sustainable and hemp/CBD products businesses. Compass Natural serves in PR and programming for NoCo Hemp Expo and Southern Hemp Expo, and Hoffman serves as Editor of the weekly Let’s Talk Hemp Newsletter, published by We are for Better Alternatives. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.