To assure the public that organic fruits and vegetables bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic seal are produced in accordance with strict rules and regulations, the National Organic Program requires that growers with organic sales of more than $5,000 per year be certified by a USDA-accredited certification agency. There are more than 50 domestic certification agencies and about 40 accredited foreign agencies.
Some critics, however, have tried to cast doubt on the veracity of the certification process saying that the practice creates a conflict of interest, and that certifiers hired by growers to inspect their growing operations can’t always be trusted to provide objective results.
Organic growers, however, are skeptical of these claims.
Samantha Cabaluna, vice president of communications and marketing for Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, Calif., said those critics don’t paint an accurate picture of how the certification process actually works.
“The USDA has been very eager to enforce the organic regulations,” she said. “I can’t imagine a certifier of any experience or integrity would be willing to risk that just to move somebody along in the process. They’re going to get caught.”
Earthbound Farm is certified by California Certified Organic Farmers, she said, which has “a huge reputation” among consumers, large and small grower-shippers, the National Organic Program and USDA.
In addition, she said, “The organic community is hyperparticipatory” and “pretty well self-policing.”
The certification process improved when the National Organic Program laid out government standards for organic produce, said Patrick Stewart, operations manager for Earl’s Organic Produce, San Francisco.
“As with anything, there are reputable certifiers you should definitely seek out,” he said.
Earl’s Organics also is certified by CCOF.
“CCOF runs a rigorous compliance system with investigations, residue sampling, unannounced inspections and formal compliance procedures,” said Jake Lewin, president of CCOF Certification Services.
If a growing operation makes a mistake, noncompliances usually can be corrected, he said.
“Our primary goal is to ensure operations understand the requirements and have an opportunity to demonstrate their efforts to meet the standards,” Lewin said. “However, where correction is not possible or the violations are egregious, CCOF issues proposed suspension or revocation.”
Quality Certification Services certifies Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., said Gary Wishnatzki, president and chief executive officer.
“We’re paying them to do the third-party certification, but they follow strict guidelines, and they get audited,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of opportunity to fudge anything. Things are either black or white with them.”
Wish Farms, like other organic growers, is required to do a lot of documentation, Wishnatzki added.
“They definitely take us to task on a lot of different things to make sure we’re doing it according to the letter of the law,” he said. “There’s no question that it’s being done correctly.”
If a grower falsifies that documentation, he risks more than losing his certification, Wishnatzki said. “You can go to jail for doing things improperly.”
Bill McCoy, owner of Better Life Produce Inc., Los Angeles, said his company was inspected in early April.
“They are so stringent on everything they do, from traceability through certifications,” he said. “They make sure we are absolutely up to date.”
Even certifications in Mexico are confirmed by Better Life’s organic certifier to make sure they are current.
“I believe that (criticism) is wrong,” he said. “If you get caught doing anything, the state would be all over you and your certifier would pull your license.”