Stalking the Organic Asparagus

Springtime is upon us, and with it comes fresh, organic produce from an increasing number of local growers. It is a benefit to these growers as well as to retailers and consumers for this wonderful food to be made available in stores. Its freshness, variety, flavor and beauty are second to none, and any produce manager can tell by sight that its quality is better than that of produce shipped across the country. But when the label "organic" is used on an item, another level of quality must be judged. Sight alone is not discriminating enough to evaluate the organic integrity of a product.

With spring of 2002 comes a myriad of changes for the world of organics. Whereas retail operations are currently exempt from having to be certified (with the exception of a few states with programs that require retailer certification), producers may or may not have to be certified. In order to ensure that you are selling appropriately labeled "organic" products and that you are buying from producers who are truly "organic," you must know a few things about the organic regulations being implemented by USDA this year.

First, let's talk about certification. The basics of the regulations are that if producers want to label a product as "organic," they must be certified by an organization that is accredited by USDA. (We'll talk about the exemption later.) Until 2002 there were no accredited certifiers, so this was seldom enforced. By the time you read this, USDA intends to have published the first list of accredited certifiers.

So, in 2002 we will finally see the implementation of the regulations and the beginnings of enforcement. All producers who wish to sell products labeled as "organic" or "certified organic" should be seeking 2002 certification from a certifier who is accredited, or who has applied for accreditation by USDA. A list of these certifiers appears on the National Organic Program (NOP) website at:

Growers wishing to sell organic food to retailers should be asked for proof of certification from one of the certifiers on the NOP list. Such proof could come in the form of:

  • a copy of the current certificate,
  • a "transaction certificate" for a specific product lot or load,
  • a determination letter granting certification, or
  • verification of certification from the certifier.

Certificates, according to the regulation, must carry the following information:

  • the name and address of the certified operation;
  • effective date of certification;
  • categories of organic operation, including crops, wild crops, livestock, or processed products; and
  • name, address, and telephone number of the certifying agent.

Buyers should make sure to have all of the information that is on a certificate. They can then attest to the organic quality of the product they are allowing to carry the organic label in their stores, and they can answer consumer inquiries. (Note: some certifiers do not allow their clients to use a certificate as a method of proving their products to be organic and instead require the use of other documents. These documents should still provide the buyer with this information.)

The "Exception to the Rule"

Small farms, defined in the regulations as operations which sell (gross) no more than $5000.00 worth of total organic products annually, are exempt from the requirement to be certified. This means that a grower can sell products they raise, labeled as "organic" (but not as "certified organic") as long as they comply with the applicable organic production and handling requirements and the labeling requirements of the Organic Rule.

Retailers may or may not choose to buy from growers who fit into this category, and it would be up to the buyer to decide what oversight and/or qualifications a producer would need to meet in order to prove they are operating within the regulations. Such oversight could come in the form of a verbal agreement, a signed affidavit, or any other arrangement decided on by the retailer. Some certifiers offer small farm registration for such growers: a process in which all records are kept and forms are filed as required for certification, but no inspection is done. This process ensures that the producer is knowledgeable about the regulations and has provided documentation of compliance with the required recordkeeping, but is not a legal requirement. Some states may not allow small farms to be exempted, so it is wise to check with your state Department of Agriculture to find out what your state program requires.

Even in this new world of USDA controlled organics, the best assurance comes not only on paper and documenting compliance but from getting to know local farmers and their farms -- developing relationships where knowledge of the people and their operations is also a big part of the picture.

The "Bad Apples"

What do you do when you or a customer suspects fraud? In most states, until recently, there was no process for reporting suspected violations of the organic regulations. With the dawn of the National Organic Program, both procedure and enforcement are on the way. Whereas it is likely that most of the produce being labeled and sold as "organic" today is grown and handled within the requirements of certification, there is always potential for fraud. Many produce managers have run into situations with growers who claim but do not prove certification and offer items whose organic integrity is questionable. Any producer who wishes to sell as "organic" should be willing to provide reasonable assurance of compliance to a buyer. The buyer should beware -- and should inquire of the producer and the certifier if anything looks questionable.

Warning signs may include:

  • extremely large quantities of product coming from a very small operation;
  • signs of removed labels or stickers on products;
  • producers who refuse to offer any kind of documentation of compliance with requirements, and/or who show little knowledge of the regulations.

As part of any agreement with a producer, retailers should have a list of qualifications that growers are required to meet. If you suspect a fraudulent claim of certification, you should contact the certifier immediately and provide them with the name, product name, and any other information you have on the suspected product and ask them to verify the producer's certification for that product.

If the certifier does not certify that producer, then you may proceed in a number of ways. Usually, the following steps would be taken. Consumers who have questions about the validity of an organic claim should be encouraged to take the same steps.

Notify the producer that:

  • there are organic regulations that must be met by all producers with whom you do business,
  • you suspect that they are making a fraudulent claim, and you are suspending transactions with them until proof of certification is received;
  • you have reported this to the claimed certifier; and
  • you may report this violation to the state and/or National Organic Program(s).

If you do not receive proof of certification and/or compliance and wish to take additional steps, do the following:

  • if you have as state organic program, notify your state governing official that the producer has violated organic regulations; and/or
  • notify the National Organic Program that the producer has violated the organic regulations.

Typically, a producer will cease using the organic label, come into compliance with the rules, or just stop selling to you. Some are more persistent and it takes threat of legal action to make them come up to code.

Keeping it Real

Despite being exempted from the requirement to be certified, retailers are usually the last in the line of food handlers from farm to final consumer. It is honorable of them to make room for locally grown organic produce on their shelves, and growers are grateful for the support of small farms. It is also the retailer's responsibility to make sure that every one of those items that bears the word "organic" does indeed come from farms that follow the same organic production practices and can verify that they have done so. Being able to answer consumers' questions about the sources and credibility of organic products will help retailers develop loyal relationships and trust and help them to educate customers about what organic really means.

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