The organic food industry is one of the fastest growing food sectors today. Consumers are savvier than ever and with every right; aside from legal requirements, they demand that the products they purchase are sold as advertised. Earlier this year, the USDA rolled out the much-anticipated Organic Integrity Database. The purpose of the database was to provide farmers, consumers, and sellers of organic food in the U.S. with up-to-date and accurate information about certified organic operations. The Organic Integrity Database is just one way that the federal government is ensuring compliance while creating transparency to the public.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Tucker of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service to get some more insights into the process of building the Organic Integrity Database and the value it is bringing to users. Read on for more:
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the Organic Integrity Database?
A: The Organic Integrity Database was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, which provided funding to modernize the current list of certified organic farms and businesses for public use. To sell agricultural products as organic, farms and businesses have to be certified by third party organizations accredited by the USDA – called certifiers. Prior to the database being stood up, we were getting Excel listings once a year from these certifiers, listing their new organic farms and businesses. Many datasets were of pretty poor quality due to the format, receiving and combining them was complex and bulky, and it was difficult to know what was going on at any given time in the industry. The Farm Bill gave the USDA funding to build a system that is now allowing third party certifiers to update the statuses of their organic businesses at any given time, with much better data quality controls.
Q: How was the database built and how is it currently being maintained?
A: We began the process by working very closely with the data providers themselves – the certifiers – because we realized that our top priority was building a database that would be easy for them to use. We convened a user group of the certifiers and brought them all to the table to understand what their priorities were. Their input was incredibly valuable in building the solution that we ended up with. My role was to lead the team, define overarching needs and requirements, and strategic direction. We started development last March, and by January this year, all 80 certifiers were able to login to the system and provide data. Many are now using the database on a daily basis.
Q: What would you say is your biggest accomplishment in your role launching the Organic Integrity Database?
A: I think being able to keep the scope tight and focused in order to roll out the database in under a year was a huge accomplishment. Scope creep can be a huge risk when you are trying to please too many people in a short period of time. We were able to keep the scope tight, so we could prove that we could do it, even if it meant starting small. Keeping it small and focused and agreeing not to do a lot of things right up front led to the early win. Now that we’ve launched, we have freedom and credibility to do other things.
Q: Can you tell us some ways that you were able to get past the red tape that many often face in the federal government?
A: The approach we used was agile software development, which our agency is very interested in and supportive of. Even before we started gathering requirements, we established a monthly meeting with other leaders to talk about what was coming up, what was going well, not going well, and how we planned to solve issues that arose. We also talked about ways to deal with possible sources of red tape early, as it was in everyone’s interest to succeed. The first few meetings were short and easy, but when problems did arise, we were well-positioned to immediately be able to get through barriers that arose. In addition, we searched across USDA for pre-existing contracting vehicles, and were able to access a terrific contractor from a list of vendors that were already prequalified. A lot of people don’t realize that these kinds of contracting options exist; using them saves a bunch of time.
Q: How would you say that this particular project has changed things for the USDA?
A: While we are still at the beginning stages of seeing the results of this project, we are already getting positive feedback from many users. For example, there is a large organic food processor using the database to research where they should be doing more outreach to build the organic market. This will ultimately help support their supply chain needs. At the government level, when we propose modifying the regulations, perhaps because they aren’t being interpreted consistently, we need to know who the new rule would impact – the database will help us research that. The database is also creating transparency for consumers. When consumers see that a certain label doesn’t match what is in the database, they can report that, and we can investigate whether there are potentially fraudulent activities going on.
Q: What would you say is next on your digital transformation roadmap?
A: In the near future, we will be launching more flexible, user-driven, real time reports. Down the road, we would love to have more visual tools; for example, we would love to see maps of the number of operations in certain counties or states, and refine search results to meet more specific user-selected criteria. We also need to be looking at better international tracking of imports – critical to our role in overseeing the globally recognized standard embodied by the organic seal. That’s a longer term project, but is an vital part of the future roadmap.