Known as AB856, the legislation came out of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and was signed into law in 2010, but didn’t go into full effect until January, said Rick Jensen, director for CDFA’s division of inspection services.
“Our legislators determined the NOP (National Organic Program) wasn’t enough,” Jensen said “They have given us the authority to regulate organic inputs, regardless where they are manufactured.”
The department’s authority — or lack thereof — related to organic fertilizers hit the headlines in late 2008 because California Liquid Fertilizer’s Biolizer XN was found to include non-organic substances.
Company owner Peter Townsley pleaded guilty Feb. 22 to two federal counts of mail fraud, admitting he sent the Organic Materials Review Institute fraudulent information in certification renewals. According to his plea agreement, Townsley sold Biolizer XN from 2000 through 2006 as organically certified even though it contained ammonium chloride and ammonium sulfate. Although those compounds are approved for use on conventional crops, they are banned from organic use.
Jensen said he grossed as much as $6.9 million on the sales. Officials said he had about 60% of California’s liquid organic fertilizer market. He faces up to 40 years in prison and fines of more than $250,000. Sentencing is set for June 13.
Jensen said even though the California agriculture department had information as early as 2004 about the violations, the department did not and still does not have subpoena authority — leading to difficulty in obtaining product samples. During its original investigation, he said CDFA used “a variety of techniques” to verify Biolizer XN ingredients.
In 2007 CDFA banned the product and later came under fire for not acting earlier.
Now, under AB856, manufacturers must apply for licenses and provide documentation of the ingredients of fertilizer they claim is OK for use in organic operations. The licenses, renewable every two years, carry a $500 fee plus an extra tax. Jensen said that could raise at least $250,000 annually.
CDFA has added “two or three investigators and another two or three registration specialists,” Jensen said. Violators face fines up to $15,000 per violation and license suspension of three years.