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As many of you are aware, the USDA accredits certifying agents who then conduct inspections related to organic certification. The USDA delegates to these agents the important regulatory function of determining whether a product is genuinely organic.
What may surprise you is less than half of the organizations which have received organic certification are actually located in the United States. According to a recent publication on Forbes, USDA certifying agents have certified about 47,000 organic operations worldwide, the majority of which are not located abroad. Once the agents have issued these organizations an organic certification, these operations are entitled to label their products with USDA Organic logos and freely enter the U.S. markets.
So, what's the catch?
There is no guarantee that foreign farms fully comply with U.S. law. "Many of these foreign countries have a serious problem with the rule of law, and foreign farmers often disregard their own national laws. How can Americans expect these foreign farmers to follow U.S. laws, with which it is usually costly to comply?" says Chenglin Liu, a professor of law at the St. Mary’s University School of Law, and an expert in food and drug law.
In the United States, farmers have more to lose than just their organic certification. If farmers located in the U.S. knowingly label their products as organic when they are not, they have to pay $11,000 per violation in addition to losing their certification. If they make a false statement to the USDA or its certifying agents, the penalty for local farmers is up to five years in prison.
If a foreign farmer commits the same offense, however, the same penalty is unlikely. The reason is simple: a foreign prosecutor has no obligation to prosecute the farmer for violating U.S. law, and a foreign judge will not apply the U.S. law in the foreign court. Without these penalties, the Organic Foods Production Act is rendered mostly ineffective in the foreign context.
As American consumers continue to look to the USDA and our government to implement and enforce quality food standards, it becomes increasingly important to know the extent of their authority and where the lines are drawn regarding enforcement and applicability of our laws. If American legal authority doesn't extend or apply to farming operations in foreign countries, does it really make sense to assume imported foreign foods adhere to USDA standards? Food for thought.