By Bruce Blythe, business editor, Vance Publishing Corp. 

The USDA will step up scrutiny of its foreign meat and fresh produce inspectors and clarify rules on outdoor access for livestock after an audit revealed lapses in the government's organic food program.

According to the audit, 24 of 44 foreign food inspection agents went as long as seven years without onsite reviews from the USDA's National Organic Program. The agents were responsible for certifying that organic fruits, vegetables, beef and poultry being shipped into the U.S. met federal organic standards.

The lack of regular reviews of foreign inspectors was one of several problems with the National Organic Program detailed in the audit, which was conducted by the USDA's Office of Inspector General and completed March 9. Auditors also found that the USDA failed to conduct spot testing of organically-grown foods for pesticides or take action against companies that were improperly marketing products as certified organic.

The organic program needs to "further improve program administration and strengthen management controls to ensure more effective enforcement of program requirements when serious violations ... are found," the audit said.

Among 14 recommendations, the USDA should implement written policies requiring foreign certifying agents have onsite reviews completed "within clearly-defined timeframes," auditors said, and revoke inspectors' accreditations if the reviews aren't completed in a timely fashion.

Rapid growth in demand for organic foods in recent years has outpaced U.S. regulators' ability to oversee the industry. Sales of organic products generated an estimated $26 billion in sales in 2009, up almost 47 percent from 2006, according to the Organic Trade Association.

The Obama administration has increased the organic program's budget, and additional money and staff have "enabled significant strides in program improvement," the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service said in a statement. The marketing service runs the organic program.

An additional $3.1 million proposed for the program's fiscal 2011 budget will "address the inadequate funding for oversight and enforcement," Rayne Pegg, Agriculture Marketing Service Administrator, said in a statement. The organic program expects to address all the audit recommendations in fiscal 2010.

U.S. organic industry representatives endorsed the auditors' recommendations.

With additional funding and staffing, the organic program "is putting in place improved measures to see that consumers can be reassured that no matter where organic products are sourced, the integrity of organic production, processing and handling is upheld," Barbara Haumann, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, said in an e-mail.

Among the recommendations, auditors said regulators need to strengthen oversight of foreign certifying agents "to ensure that products are consistently and uniformly meeting (National Organic Program) standards," the audit said.

In three cases, according to the audit, National Organic Program officials said they weren't able to make overseas visits because the certifying agents were in countries for which the U.S. State Department had issued travel warnings.

The three agents, in Bolivia, Israel and Turkey, had certified a combined 1,400 organic operations since they were accredited by the USDA about seven years ago, the audit said.

Oversight of foreign organic certifying agents needs "significant improvement," auditors said.

For organic livestock operations, auditors recommended the USDA develop more specific guidance on how long animals should have access to the outdoors and how much space they should get.

The USDA needs to "more effectively identify inconsistent operating practices and clarify program requirements," the audit said.

In one example, the auditors said four USDA livestock certifying agents were each enforcing different requirements for the operations they inspected.

U.S. organic regulations "require access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to each species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment," the audit said.

However, the regulations "did not specifically state how long access should be provided and how much area should be accessible to the animals."