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Pundit’s Mailbag —  Are Consumers Entitled To Know If Organic Or Transitional Product Is Sold As Conventional?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 20, 2012

Although recently our interview with Dr. Steve Savage — which we ran under the title Organics, Crop Yields And Feeding The World — has been attracting all the attention when it comes to organics, we had previously run a piece on organic produce that attracted its own response. Our article, As Organic Produce Grows Beyond Local And National Borders, Will Government Step In To Set Definitions And Change Certifications? brought a letter from this frequent correspondent:

Reading your article on Organic reminded me that we still have a question here in the United States that has never really been addressed since the spinach crisis of 2006. When a product is farmed organically but sold as conventional only because the three-year certification cycle has not been fulfilled, should a product be considered organic because of the calendar or because of the way it is being farmed?

— Eric Schwartz
President and Chief Executive Officer
Patterson Vegetable Company
Patterson, California

Eric has contributed many pieces to the Pundit including these:

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Dole Vegetables’ Eric Schwartz

Pundit’s Mailbag — How About Subsidy Money For GTIN Conversion?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers

Pundit’s Mailbag — More Questions About Leafy Greens Board

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard

Single Step Award Winner — Eric Schwartz Of Dole Vegetables

Pundit’s Mailbag — PMA’s Opportunity To Learn From Friends And Foes

Pundit’s Mailbag — Lesson From Avocadogate: You Get What You Tolerate

Dole Hit With Another Recall

Dole’s Schwartz Sheds More Light On Recent Recall

Arizona Marketing Agreement One Step Closer To National Leafy Green Standard

Why The Secrecy On Inspection Agency Lab Results?

A Call To The Buying Community: Uniform Food Safety Standards Are Required

We always value Eric’s input and so appreciate this now as it gives us an opportunity to deal with an interesting issue. The rules regarding organic certification require that if the land was used for conventional production, there is a three-year waiting period following the switchover to organic techniques, after which the product can be marketed as organic.

The reason for the waiting period is that, understandably, someone interested in buying organically grown product would not be happy buying an apple, for example, on Tuesday from, say, a tree that had been sprayed synthetically on Monday  but was part of an orchard that had commenced organic techniques that morning. More broadly, the notion is that there are residues in the soil, etc.

We are not actually aware of any good evidence for why three years and not 30 months or 42 months or something else is the standard, but that is the number that was agreed to.

Technically during this three-year period the product, grown in accordance with organic standards but not yet certifiable as organic, could be marketed as “transitional.” Although there have been efforts to market product in this way, as we mentioned here, they are few and far between. It is hard enough to have two separate products — conventional and organic — with two separate price points. To market a third with a subtle distinction is just too hard. Not that growers would not like to. After all, for three years this transitional rule means that growers will incur the costs and lower yields of organic without getting the price premium.

Still, that is the situation, and so unable to market the product as organic and there being no market for transitional, most of the product gets sold as conventional.

Eric is raising the question of whether this, in and of itself, isn’t actually a form of fraud perpetrated on consumers. The assumption had always been that, though organic consumers wanted that kind of product, conventional consumers didn’t care. In fact, some retailers, looking to reduce the SKU count, only carry organic on low volume items on the assumption that consumers are just as happy to buy organic as conventional.

We have never seen a survey that attested to this, yet with concerns over food safety, this may not be true for some consumers. We have received a few letters from conventional farmers saying that they actively preferred not to eat organic. The gist was that organic pesticides and fungicides are less effective than synthetic options, so they felt that more had to be applied and this could lead to more residues.

Of course, the problem is that although product is certified to be organic, nobody certifies product to be conventional. So, other than the fact that it has to be legal, there is no violation in marketing transitional product as conventional because there is no standard to violate. The question Eric is really asking is ought there to be such a standard?

We suppose opinions will differ, but we tend to think we have enough standards to worry about without creating another one.

Many thanks to Eric Schwartz of Patterson Vegetable Company for prodding us to think through this intriguing subject.

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