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Pundit’s Mailbag — As ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Investigation Widens, Potential Grows For Weaker Consumer Confidence In All Fresh Produce

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 19, 2009

Thanks for your insightful articles, including ‘ Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Raises Consumer Doubts About Organic Definition and Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard.

This is more than just a quirky organic produce issue. While it remains a tiny percentage of overall production and sales, organic produce gets top billing with the media these days.

Consumer trust in any kind of fresh produce concerns all of us, and when the organic leadership and organic certifiers are not willing to do the right thing, it hurts everyone in the produce business as we continue to face major challenges in maintaining consumer confidence in the integrity and safety of fresh produce.

The investigation widens and now involves another fertilizer producer.

— David Sasuga
Founder
Fresh Origins
San Marcos, California

Yes, the investigation is widening. Jim Downing over at the Sacramento Bee continues his series with a piece titled, Federal Raid Heightens Concerns about Fake Organic Fertilizer:

Federal agents… searched a major producer of fertilizer for California’s organic farmers, widening concern about the use of synthetic chemicals in the industry.

The raid… targeted Port Organic Products Ltd. of Bakersfield. Industry sources estimate the company produced up to half of the liquid fertilizer used on the state’s organic farms in recent years.

The Bee reported in December on a state investigation that caught another large organic fertilizer maker spiking its product with synthetic nitrogen, which is cheap, difficult to detect — and banned from organic farms.

Since then, the organic industry and state officials have taken several steps to catch violators in California, which produces nearly 60 percent of the U.S. harvest of organic fruits, nuts and vegetables.

California Certified Organic Farmers, the state’s top organic certifier, last week mandated inspections of fertilizer makers that sell to its clients. Meanwhile, Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest producer of organic greens, is stepping up a new testing program for the chemicals its farmers use. In addition, state fertilizer inspectors may get additional auditing powers …

… work remains to improve a patchwork regulatory system that presumes manufacturers tell the truth about their products…

“Trust is fine until there’s money on the table,” said Dennis Macura, who runs the Morgan Hill-based fertilizer company AgroThrive.

No charges have been filed in the most recent case, but Kern County records dating back to 2005 show Port Organic has stocked thousands of gallons of aqua ammonia, a common source of synthetic nitrogen.

The company’s fertilizers were ostensibly made from ground-up fish carcasses. But documents obtained by The Bee show that California Department of Food and Agriculture officials suspected the company of using synthetic nitrogen back in October 2007.

Port Organic’s president, Ken Nelson, did not return calls from The Bee. On Friday, California Certified Organic Farmers ordered its clients to stop using Port Organic’s products.

“We are shocked at the lack of integrity of this manufacturer … and we are doing our best to restore trust in the organic system,” said Claudia Reid, the group’s policy director. …

The incentive to make a fake organic fertilizer is clear, since synthetic nitrogen is as much as 20 times cheaper than approved nutrient sources such as ground-up fish and chicken feathers. Synthetic nitrogen often works better than organic products and it also is difficult to detect using standard laboratory analyses.

Port Organic is the latest in a series of fertilizer makers to be accused of passing off chemical fertilizers as organic.

California Liquid Fertilizer held as much as a third of the state market in 2006 before state regulators quietly pulled the Salinas-area company’s leading product, which had been used by Earthbound Farm and other industry leaders. Another company pulled its fertilizer from the organic market in November 2007 amid a state investigation.

As part of efforts to crack down on unscrupulous fertilizer makers, Earthbound Farm and others are experimenting with more-sophisticated analyses that help reveal whether nitrogen in a fertilizer came from a natural source. …

It is hard to know what to make of all this. Is it really possible that executives at California Certified Organic Farmers are “shocked” that a vendor would attempt to enhance his profits by misrepresenting his product?

If so, then there must be many more examples among various organic inputs. As Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.” CCOF needs to have an audit procedure for all organic inputs.

Of course, one other question is why we would think this is solely a California problem. Perhaps as part of its activities the USDA needs to insist that all inputs not only be organic but be certified to be organic.

It is good to see that Earthbound Farms is stepping up testing and experimenting with new techniques to identify non-organic fertilizers. However one suspects that smaller organic producers would have a lot of trouble with this regimen; they need a certification that they can rely on, not a procedure they can do themselves.

David’s letter is raising another, broader, point. We already discussed that CCOF perceives itself not as a consumer protection group but rather as an advocate for organic farming. So it has avoided recalls and reclassifying land as transitional rather than organic because causing losses, even though the action was inadvertent, would raise the risk of investing in organic agriculture.

On the other hand, we raised the possibility that a failure to enforce standards would diminish the credibility of organic certification, a concern Claudia Reid, group policy director for CCOF, echoes when she says in the article above that “…we are doing our best to restore trust in the organic system,”

David Sasuga raises the ante still further. He argues that a lack of credibility for organic certification will reflect in less consumer confidence in all fresh produce. In other words, if the perception is that the industry fools around with standards and enforcement to enhance its profitability on organic matters, perhaps the industry would do the same for sustainability or food safety.

It is a fair assessment, even if unproven. It is hard to imagine that falling short on consumer expectations of any sort is going to help organics or the broader produce industry.

Many thanks to David Sasuga and Fresh Origins for helping to keep this issue top-of-mind.

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