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USDA Proposes Stricter Regulations for Organic Certification

USDA Organic

The USDA Organic seal. Public domain image.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing sweeping changes to its Organic certification program regulations that may have a profound impact on the conventional and specialty coffee industries.

The proposed new standards and regulations were released on the Federal Register on Aug. 5, and a comment period is currently open until Monday, Oct. 5. If approved, the changes would be the first significant revisions to Organic certification regulations since they were first adopted in 2000.

In general, the new regulations call for stricter oversight throughout the supply chain of certified-Organic products, including adding new compliance requirements and additional oversight for supply chain actors such as agricultural cooperatives, exporters and importers, or packaged product makers such as coffee roasters.

Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA arm that oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), said that complexities of supply chains combined with the growth of the organic products market over the past 20 years has resulted in the need for increased oversight.

“The growth and complexity of the modern organic industry has exposed the limitations of the current organic regulations, revealing gaps in oversight and enforcement that the original regulations do not address,” AMS wrote in the proposal. “A lack of clear and specific standards in portions of the regulations has sometimes led to different interpretations of the regulations, inconsistent practices, and unequal enforcement across the industry. Increasingly complex organic supply chains reduce transparency and complicate traceability, yet these elements are essential to trust in the organic label. In addition, businesses that operate in the organic supply chain without oversight from the NOP pose risks to organic integrity. This can lead to mishandling of organic product, loss of organic integrity, and fraud. The provisions in this proposed rule are designed to address these risks.”

Organic coffee

An organic coffee farm in Pasco, Peru. Daily Coffee News photo/Nick Brown

According to the USDA, total organic product sales in the U.S. have grown from $3.4 billion in 1997 to $55.1 billion in 2019.

Along with bananas and cocoa, coffee is one of a small handful of agricultural products primarily produced outside of the country that falls under the Organic program’s “grower group” standards, allowing smallholder farmers to bring products to market that can be certified as organic through larger cooperatives, for example.

The latest market research from firms such as Allied Market Research and ReportLinker suggests that the market for USDA Organic-certified coffee last year in the United States was somewhere around $5.7 to $6.8 billion and growing.

While Organic-certified coffee tends to fetch a price premium, there’s a dearth of data related to cost vs. benefits for coffee producers, processors and roasters. There’s also very little data relating to how much coffee is organically grown but not certified as such, or on how much certified-Organic coffee is sold without a premium as conventional coffee.

DCN plans to have more in the coming weeks on these proposed changes and their specific potential impacts on coffee producers, traders and roasters.

Click here to view the proposed changes or to submit comments to the USDA.

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