Regulations keep organic grower-shippers busy

06/02/2011 11:24:00 AM
Dan Gailbraith

As if general food safety and quality regulations aren’t enough to keep grower-shippers busy in the produce industry, the organic sector has a whole other set of regulations to satisfy. Many of these regulations — from approved pesticides and fertilizers to import regulations — are evolving, and the produce industry is keeping involved every step of the way.

In Washington, organic apple and other tree fruit growers are closely watching the debate by the National Organics Standards Board on the possible de-listing of tetracycline and streptomycin for use on organic orchards.

Addie Pobst, import coordinator for CF Fresh, Sedro-Woolley, Wash., said banning the substances, which are antibiotics used to control fire blight, would devastate the organic tree fruit industry in Washington. Fire blight is highly contagious and can quickly decimate an orchard, killing acres of trees outright, Pobst said.

The Washington State Horticultural Association has petitioned the board to keep the substances on the allowed list, claiming that 76% of the organic apple and pear growers in the state say they would reduce or entirely eliminate their organic apple and pear production if a de-listing occurred.

The Organic Trade Association is also working to extend an exemption for apple and pear growers in the state to use the substances until a replacement method for fire blight control can be developed.

Shippers that do business across international borders are also awaiting the board’s decision on a recommendation to disallow sodium nitrate to be used in organic growing. The compound is used to keep vegetable plants from freezing during the winter months, but its use goes against organic standards for many countries, including Canada and Japan.

Sodium nitrate has created issues in international trade for U.S.-certified organic produce, according to the USDA action memorandum that requests it to be disallowed. In the U.S. equivalence agreement with Canada, sodium nitrate use is one of very few deal-breakers. Because European Union countries also prohibit the use of the compound, its acceptance in the U.S. may also complicate efforts to achieve an equivalence agreement there, according to the memo.

The board is scheduled to take up the recommendation at its April 26-29 meeting in Seattle.

Marco Brakkee, vice president of importer OTC USA, the American arm of the Dutch company OTC, said its business in the U.S. is limited in the U.S. by import regulations for certain varieties.

“We cannot import certain types of organic fruits and vegetables from certain countries because of strict food safety regulations,” Brakkee said.

The company just tries to react as quickly as possible when regulations allow for a new item to be imported to quickly address new demand. The company’s growers are certified by both European and U.S. certifying organizations, Brakkee said.

In the tree fruit industry, pear growers like Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc. are hoping for a change in regulation that allows ethylene to be used to pre-ripen organic pears.

“Currently, our industry cannot ripen organic pears with ethylene, even though organic bananas are allowed to,” said Brianna Shales, communications manager. “We want that to change, as pre-ripening significantly increases consumer satisfaction of pears.”

The Los Angeles Times brought to national attention the undisclosed—or rather covered up — use of synthetic chemicals in fertilizers marketed as organic. The indictment of Kenneth Nelson Jr. of Port Organic Products Ltd., is the latest in a short string of arrests made in a U.S. Department of Agriculture crack-down on fertilizers posing as organic.

In Nelson’s case, the supposed organic fertilizer was supposed to be made from fish meal and bird guano, but was, “spiked with far cheaper synthetic chemicals,” according to the Times. Nelson had sold $9 million worth in eight years.

As of March, the USDA had seven open investigations involving the National Organic Program, according to the article.

Tom Deardorff II, president of Oxnard, Calif.-based Deardorff Family Farms, said the regulatory issues go far beyond just organics in his neck of the woods.

“California is over-regulated whether you are an organic grower, conventional grower or both. It does not matter,” Deardorff said.

Deardorff said he works with Western Growers and the United Fresh Produce Association, along with other advocacy groups, to help level the playing field for California growers when it comes to transportation and water resources, among other issues.



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Clint Albano    
Muscat, Oman  |  June, 15, 2011 at 08:23 PM

The organic industry got themselves into these silly hairsplitting situation through the dubious claims of their products being "all natural", "more nutritious" and "free of those awful manmade chemicals and fertilizers" And by getting in bed with the federal government it looks like they have gotten more than just a good night's sleep.

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