One reporter’s exploration of organic, and the USDA’s standards for enforcement
The sound of a cash register chings at the organic market. Vibrant produce passes over the scanner, and the total leaps five, eight, then 15 dollars higher.
A single adult living the organic lifestyle can spend $500 a month on food—at least if my grocery bill is any sign of the times. An heirloom tomato might be $.50 down the road at Safeway, but here it’s $1.60. Why is organic produce so expensive? Are organic junkies like me getting ripped off?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published the first in-depth report on organic farming, finding that the average organic farm spends $170,000 a year in production. Conventional farms only spend about $103,000.
“This is generally because organic farmers need crews for weeding,” says Peggy Miars, executive director at the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). In addition, many organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies (unlike conventional farmers), and so their prices reflect the true cost of growing.
Yet it turns out organic farms still manage to make more money. According to the USDA’s 2008 Organic Survey, the average organic farmer sold $217,500 worth of product, while their conventional counterparts had only $135,000 in sales. When asked to pick their “primary production challenge,” 29 percent of organic farms selected “regulatory problems,” while only 9 percent selected “price issues.” Perhaps this is because consumers (like me) will pay three times more for organic tomatoes.
Not everyone is so dedicated—or gullible, as the case may be. My brother and sister-in law, who live in Utah, buy organic apples and bulk products. But given all of their baby expenses (they had a little boy last year), they can’t justify spending $6 on a basket of organic strawberries when conventional fruit is so much less.
“Each label has different standards, so I wonder how organic the produce really is,” says Natasha, my sister in-law, while pouring a glass of homemade compote. Natasha, who is Russian, makes the drink by simmering berries in water.
As I drink the punch, I think about the one million pounds of pesticides used on Santa Cruz strawberry crops last year. Raspberries took 321,000, and blackberries were treated with 67,000 pounds. In contrast, farmers only sprayed persimmons with 6 pounds of chemicals. These numbers drop even lower for veggies. For example, conventional artichokes were treated with 1,000 pounds in 2008, according to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
“Buying organic is worth the extra money, especially when it comes to berries,” I say. I tell Natasha to look for California labels, as our local certifiers have higher standards, and often certify farms nation-wide.
Little did I know that I would soon be eating my words. A few months later I opened a press release to see an alarming headline: “USDA Audit Recommends Improvements for California Organic Program.” Released in March by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, the report says that California—the birthplace of the organic revolution—was out of compliance. Problems with the National Organic Program were also listed.
I felt a pang of guilt as I imagined my sister-in-law searching for California-certified organic produce in Salt Lake City. Would she be better off just buying conventional?
The California State Organic Program falls under Rick Jensen, acting director of Inspection Services at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Jensen says things aren’t as grim as they seem. The March report mainly focuses on the need for better enforcement procedures, and more detailed manuals. “Inspection procedures in the past were a little broad, and correcting these deficiencies will strengthen enforcement of farms that are not certified, but claim to be organic,” he says.
Vendors at farmers’ markets and other small-scale producers are one concern. If an operation sells less than $5,000 worth of product a year, it doesn’t have to certify.
“We would probably know if one of our certified farms was applying pesticides,” says Miars. “But we have no jurisdiction over farmers that claim to be organic, but have never sought organic certification.”
To avoid falling victim, Miars recommends consumers ask to see a farmer’s certificate. “If vendors at farmers’ markets aren’t certified, the word organic shouldn’t be used,” she says.
Jensen says the new procedures will be more strategic in addressing this problem. “We aren’t targeting [small farms] to the exclusion of others, but we do have jurisdiction over exempt producers,” he says.
Now, instead of randomly selecting sites, California’s State Organic Program will focus on risky operations like exempt operations, new organic farms, and growers that have a history of non-compliance. Small farms that sell both conventional and organic products are also a target, as segregating chemical-free products is a priority.
The State Organic Program audits 25 percent of operations every year, and fines up to $5,000 for progressive violations. Five-hundred and three spot-inspections were conducted last year alone. Jensen says the number of audits probably won’t increase, but the selection process is being fine-tuned.
“We were actually addressing many of these problems before the report came out,” he says. “It’s just an issue of timing.”
As to why California’s program is targeted by the report, Miars says no other state has a similar agency to criticize. “In most states enforcement is done by the National Organic Program,” says Miars. Utah remains the only other state to have established an organic program, but they withdrew last year.
Is ‘Certified Organic’ Really Organic?
The good news is that third party certifiers are off the hot seat. No problems with organic products were highlighted in the report.
“Certifiers can still be trusted to ensure farmers are growing according to standards, regardless of what is happening at the state and national level,” says Miars “When you buy something that is labeled organic, it has gone through rigorous inspection and review at every step, from seed to fertilizer to labeling.”
CCOF certifies about 3,000 acres in Santa Cruz County, and more than 603,000 acres worldwide. More than 100 other groups also certify organic produce—each must accredit with the National Organic Program every two years. “They go out and follow inspectors–it’s pretty rigorous,” says Miars.
The accreditation process will become even stricter in response to the USDA report. The National Organic Program will establish a peer-review panel to evaluate the accreditation process, and tighten up any loose ends.
For example, when foreign certifiers are located in dangerous territories, the National Organic Program awards accreditation without a site visit. Now the rules for site visits will be applied more consistently. The report also questions whether certifiers and organic programs should conduct pesticide residue testing.
Not in contest are the national standards that define the term “organic.” The USDA streamlined certification procedures in 2002, and all labels now enforce the same criteria. These standards are not targeted by the report, and will remain in effect.
“Prior to 2002 there were only about eight certifiers in the country, and we were all using different standards. Now we are all using the same USDA standards, and this is working well,” says Miars. “Generally speaking, consumers get the same level of organic regardless of who certified their food.” Organic labels can’t exceed USDA standards, and no one is allowed to “certify beyond organic.”
Still, my sister-in-law was rightly curious about the differences between labels. As to whether consumers should seek out one organic label over another, Miars says there are slight differences—most relate to management practices like animal welfare and workers’ rights. “We do believe we interpret standards more strictly than other certifiers,” says Miars.
For example, cows and animals raised for organic meat must have “access to pasture.”
“This could mean 100 different things to 100 different people,” says Miars. “One certifier might want cows to have access to pasture 365 days a year, but others might require a certain number of days outside each month.”
The USDA published a more formal definition in February, requiring year-round access for all animals to the outdoors. While not the subject of the report, management practices are being continually fine-tuned.
This is good news for consumers, as it ensures products with certified organic labels all meet the same criteria.
That said, I’m sorry, Natasha—I should have written this article before answering your questions about labels.