Insights by Goldie
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Sound Consumer | May 2002

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Q: I read that the cost of becoming Certified Organic (in California) has drastically reduced the number of mom and pop farms from 740 to 188 in just two years. A local farm in Washington, meanwhile, where I buy produce, says it can"t afford the cost of certification, but neither can it label its food "no spray." They can't even call it "pesticide free" without certifcation, even though they use no synthetic pesticides. Are certification fees a flat fee for both large and small producers, discouraging family/community farms?
— Marna Marteeny

A: I understand and share Marna"s concern with survival of small farmers, especially those who honor their land with sustainable, non-toxic growing practices. But I'd like to clarify a couple of things.

The $5,000 exemption
The Organic Food Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) is the overriding statutory authority at the federal level. On October 21, 2002 it will be fully implemented. Congress established an exemption for small organic farmers whose gross organic sales were no higher than $5,000 annually. They"re not required to be certified under the Act, although they may choose to do so and indications are that many will remain or become certified.

On the other hand, many small producers, whose sales levels meet the $5,000 criteria, have opted out of certification in the past. With the federal law, they may continue to do so or not.

I wish it were within the power of the organic standards board on which I sit (NOSB) or the organic program staff at the USDA to change the dollar level of the exemption. Personally I would probably support it at three or four times the current dollar level, and would spell out more clearly the wording of signage that might be suggested acceptable. Unfortunately, Congress set the figure and the conditions, and only an act of Congress could change it in any way.

What does "no spray" say?
Legally exempted farms can still legally use the term "organic," just not "certified organic." They can also make any other statements that describe how their product is grown, so long as it is truthful. Foods made from their "organic" product, however, such as applesauce, may not be legally labeled "organic." They may sell on-farm, CSA, have direct sales to restaurants, or sell to retail stores.

The farmer Marna is concerned about has more than $5,000 sales and doesn't qualify for the exemption. Therefore, under the law, she cannot legally label her produce "organic." She can, however, make other truthful statements about her production practices.

The examples Marna cited, "no spray" or "pesticide free," would not be allowed. Those particular phrases are ambiguous or inaccurate even for organic terminology. But she should be able to make statements such as "no synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides are ever used on our farm," or similar declarations.

Words such as "pesticide free" imply the produce was tested, and remember, certified organic is not a test-based, but a "process-based" growing method. That's because in our 21st century reality, pesticides and other toxic substances, unfortunately, are present as "background" materials in virtually all water and much soil on the planet.

Cost of certification
As to the fees that accredited certifiers will be allowed to charge for certification, which Marna also is concerned about, those fees will be set by each entity accredited to certify to the new federal standards. That means that if the USDA accredits the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) as a certifier, and we have every reason to believe it will be, WSDA will continue to set its own fee structure. So too will all other certifiers. There may be a bit of competition between certifiers as to fee structure and amount.

Other common questions about organics are answered by administrators of the National Organic Program on the website www.ams.usda.gov/nop, just click on "Frequently Asked Questions." Here are a few:

Q: Is organic livestock and poultry feed "vegetarian?"

A: Not necessarily. Although as stated in the National Organic Standards subpart C, section 205.237(b)(5), "The producer of an organic operation must not feed mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry," there is no restriction against organic livestock feed containing appropriate fish products. I have a deli in my retail store that makes various multi-ingredient products where 70-95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic. These products are packaged at the customer's request and the only thing we put on the package is price information. What organic claims can we make on the signs describing the products?

Your signs may indicate that the product you package are "made with (specified ingredients or food groups)" as explained in the NOS, section 205.309. You may not list more than three ingredients or food groups. For example, you may sell chicken salad with a sign that reads "chicken salad made with organic chicken, celery and grapes." [Note: this may seem crazy, because it may have six ingredients that are organic, yet be less than 95 percent organic, and still can list only three ingredients. The theory, apparently, is that this encourages the deli to go "100 percent organic," but it doesn't necessarily educate the consumer.]

Q: Do NOP regulations require the use of organic seed?

A: NOP regulations require the use of organic seed when commercially available. For options when organic seed is not commercially available, see section 205.204 of the NOP regulations or consult a certifying agent.

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