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 accredited 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 highlighted 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 National Organic Program needs to “further improve program administration and strengthen their management controls to ensure more effective enforcement of program requirements when serious violations… are found,” the audit said.

Additionally, organic program administrators need to “strengthen their oversight of certifying agents and organic operations to ensure that organic products are consistently and uniformly meeting (National Organic Program) standards, the audit said.

Among 14 recommended improvements, the auditors said the USDA should implement written policies and procedures requiring foreign certifying agents have onsite reviews completed “within clearly-defined timeframes.”

“The policy should require revoking accreditations if onsite reviews cannot be timely completed because of government-issued travel restrictions and other factors beyond the agency’s control,” the auditors said.

In three cases, 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. The lack of onsite reviews reduces the National Organic Program’s assurance that either the certifying agents or the organic operations they certified “were operating in accordance with NOP regulations,” the audit said.

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

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.”