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OTA holds in-depth webinar on progress of historic new SOE rule

The Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule, first published in January 2023 and implemented on March 19, 2024, is the single largest update to USDA organic regulations since the creation of the National Organic Program (NOP) and has been a sea change for the organic sector. To keep its members informed on this critical rule, the Organic Trade Association recently held a webinar, NOP Enforcement in the SOE Era: The Power of Data, in which Dr. Jenny Tucker, Deputy Administrator for USDA’s National Organic Program, provided an in-depth overview of how implementation of SOE is progressing.  

SOE closes gaps in the current organic regulations and builds consistent certification practices to detect and prevent fraud, improve the transparency and traceability of organic products across the supply chain, and protect organic integrity to support continued growth of the organic market. An SOE summary as well as a wealth of member-exclusive SOE resources are available on OTA’s SOE page

During the OTA webinar, Dr. Tucker shared key insights into the data now available as a benefit of the SOE requirement that all organic imports be accompanied by electronic NOP import certificates. The data provided by these certificates is already pulling back the curtain on the crops, products, and volumes entering the U.S., highlighting their sources to allow for the transparency and traceability promised by SOE, and pointing to areas along the supply chain where new business types and structures demonstrate the need for an evolving and adaptable certification approach.

Key Update: Effective September 19 it will not be possible to generate NOP import certificates without a USDA certified importer listed in the USDA Organic Integrity Database and customs brokers will not be able to process older paper-based import certificates from outside the Organic Integrity Database

Viewing of the entire webinar is available for free to OTA members. Individuals or businesses joining OTA can gain access to this and future exclusive regulatory guidance and content. Apply to join OTA today

Highlights of the data shared by Dr. Tucker, which align with the four primary goals of the SOE rule:    

1. Increase the number of certified entities to preexisting gaps in certification. Except for a narrow set of exemptions, SOE requires certification of all entities in the organic supply chain. 

  • 1,421 U.S. handling operations have been certified between January 1 and June 15 of this year, a 3x increase from 2023 during this period. 
  • 2,709 new handling operations have been certified worldwide since January 1, 2024, many of which are likely exporters that were previously exempt from certification. 

2. Require the use of electronic import certificates. 

  • Effective September 19 it will not be possible to generate NOP import certificates without a USDA certified importer listed in the USDA Organic Integrity Database. While most organic imports have been accompanied by import certificates since implementation earlier this year, some imports have been allowed entry in the absence of an import certificate while importers complete the certification process. 
  • 49, 712 import certificates have been issued since March 19, giving NOP an unprecedented view of what is entering the United States.  
  • 63 percent of import certificates have been issued by USDA accredited certifiers, with the balance issued by EU, Canada, and Japan which shows the value of international equivalency arrangements in upholding organic integrity.  
  • NOP has sent 837 warning letters to uncertified importers since March 19, informing them they are required to be certified. Many are in the process of certification; however, a second round of warning letters are being sent to those still not started on certification. 

3. Strengthen recordkeeping and supply chain traceability. 

  • With the requirement for import certificates, NOP can now track import levels of various commodities, take action where it sees violations, and “watch to see where the data tells us to go,” said Tucker. 
  • NOP is hearing from certifiers who, due to the traceability requirements in the rule, are already taking action against operations not able to demonstrate traceability. 
  • NOP is working with trade partners around the globe to conduct yield studies to establish what productive capacity is for a crop in a given region or growing system. This will help identify imports that exceed these reasonable expectations of yields. 

4. Strengthen oversight of accredited certifiers. 

  • NOP is seeing the need for evolving certification models, particularly for high-volume, high-throughput operations such as retail distribution systems. “We need to have organic integrity at the speed of business,” stressed Tucker. NOP is collaborating with certifiers who are exploring new ways of meeting client needs while also maintaining organic integrity. 
  • NOP and certifiers are defining, identifying, and implementing risk-based certification approaches. However, in some instances, certifiers are requesting measures be implemented on some small operations that are not reasonable for their level of risk in the supply chain. NOP is working with the community to calibrate implementation and is emphasizing sound and sensible approaches. 
  • OTA has heard from members about reduced service levels and increased turnaround times for new certifications and certificate additions. The trade association will continue conversations with NOP and certifiers to meet the dual goals of robust oversight and timely responsiveness to business needs, as it is imperative that the certification system achieves both outcomes.   

How to file a complaint 

Concerned about the status or veracity of an organic product in the supply chain? NOP Compliance Officer Tobiah Passett presented an overview of how to file a complaint with the NOP and what happens once the complaint is filed.  

Submitting detailed information on the “who, what, where, and how” is key to giving NOP the ability to effectively follow up on the complaint and convert the complaint to an investigation. To know the results of the complaint, complainants must be sure to submit their name and contact details to enable NOP to contact them when the complaint and any investigation is closed. 

For more information on the webinar, and for on-demand viewing of it, go here

By Scott Rice, Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs