Head of USDA’s National Organic Program steps down

Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator for the National Organic Program at the USDA, said he was stepping down Sept. 30 after eight years in the position, and moving back to his home state of Washington while he considers new opportunities.

McEvoy led the program, which oversees organic regulations and the USDA organic seal, during a period of tremendous industry growth. But it was also a period of conflict within the world of organic farmers and producers, with fierce debates about what constitutes organic practices — debates that are likely to continue long after McEvoy leaves.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while,” McEvoy told FERN’s Ag Insider on the sidelines of an event hosted by Organic Valley and Maple Hill for a grass-fed organic dairy label. “Our original plan, my wife and I, was to come here for five years and run the program — so we stayed for eight.”

The organic program is stronger now than when he first came aboard, he says: “There’s better quality [organic] inspectors, better quality certifiers, and we raised the bar around the world in terms of quality of the work.”

He said that he did not think the new regime, under Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, had any desire to weaken the organic program. The new administration at the USDA favored “increased enforcement authority for the National Organic Program” and also supported anything that “expands markets,” such as consistent regulations around the world governing organic practices.

“There are limited resources, and that has slowed things down a bit,” McEvoy said. “Any regulatory change is challenging in the current environment, because of the clearance process and stakeholders and agencies that have to look at things.”

But he said the biggest change during his tenure was that standards have improved, so that certifiers and inspectors are working more consistently to ensure organic practices.

At the same time, the NOP was recently hit by a scandal involving imports of fraudulent organic grain. One trading firm’s organic certification was revoked and McEvoy said that the investigation into the fraudulent shipment was ongoing.

Although he acknowledged the problems, McEvoy said overall he believed organic integrity had gotten stronger over the past decade.  “We’ve done a lot of things to strengthen the system and put checks in place by the certifiers so they’re doing additional unannounced inspections,” he said. “There’s always going to be some bad actors. You can’t eliminate it, but the system is very strong to protect organic integrity.”

McEvoy said he had no plans for what comes next, other than to take some time off. But he stressed he was not retiring, just stepping down from government service.