May 15, 2009
Organic Industry Tightening Standards After Controversy

The dust is starting to settle from the organic fertilizer brouhaha in California, but certified growers in that state and elsewhere can’t be blamed if they’re still worrying about the authenticity of the products they use to help grow their crops.

USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) and other industry groups are trying to ease those worries and make sure the integrity of organic inputs, especially liquid fertilizer, is maintained.

The dustup started last December, when The Sacramento Bee reported that the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) had ordered California Liquid Fertilizers to remove its fertilizer from the organic market in January 2007, because the company had been spiking its product with ammonium sulfate, a synthetic fertilizer banned from organic farming.

According to the newspaper, CDFA investigated California Liquid Fertilizers for two and a half years before ordering the company to remove its product from store shelves. Before the order, the company held as much as a third of California’s organic fertilizer market. The paper also revealed that another organic fertilizer distributor removed its product from shelves in November 2007, in the middle of another state investigation.

Earlier this year, on Jan. 23, another liquid fertilizer manufacturer, Port Organic Products Ltd., was raided by federal agents. Four weeks later, NOP informed organic certifiers that Port Organic was being investigated and that two of its liquid fertilizers might not comply with federal regulations.

According to NOP, organic growers “should be aware that continued use of Marizyme and Agrolizer and products made from these materials puts their operations at considerable risk.”

NOP decided not to take action against growers who used non-compliant products without knowledge, since those growers were following the rules, said Miguel Guerrrero, marketing director for the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

The organic industry is working to restore its image. CDFA, OMRI, California Certified Organic Farmers and Organic Fertilizer Association of California are pushing for increased scrutiny of organic inputs, and an Organic Trade Association task force is developing a national standard for verifying the integrity of those inputs.

Their activities parallel those of NOP, which has mandated that the following guidelines must be in place by Oct. 1:

Approval of all high-nitrogen liquid fertilizers must be accompanied by documentation that demonstrates their compliance with NOP regulations, based upon a third-party inspection. If such documentation is not provided, the certifying agency must immediately rescind approval.

As a condition of recognition as a third-party reviewer by NOP, all reviewers must implement a system of audit and inspection for branded products they deem compliant with NOP regulations. Inspections must include liquid fertilizers and other inputs where synthetic substitutes are readily available and have the potential to be concealed.

NOP also required that, by Oct. 1, fertilizer manufacturers must show the following documentation from a third-party evaluation:

No evidence of fraud in formulation, including verifying the presence of all necessary infrastructure to produce the approved finished product.

Verification that no synthetic nitrogen equipment, tanks or supplies were within 100 yards of the facility that produces the organic inputs at any time of the year.

Verification that a successful audit was conducted comparing incoming materials with outgoing finished products, along with detailed explanations for any deviations.

Patching the cracks

Marizyme and Agrolizer, the controversial fertilizers from Port Organic Products, originally were approved for organic use by OMRI, the Eugene, Ore.-based nonprofit that evaluates commercial products used in organic farming.

Guerrero, OMRI’s marketing director, said Port Organic must have supplemented its fish-based fertilizers with non-approved substances some time after they had passed OMRI’s initial audit. Manufacturers are supposed to tell OMRI when they make changes to a product so the product can be re-evaluated, but Port Organic failed to do that. OMRI removed both fertilizers from its approved list Feb. 17, he said.

Besides the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), OMRI is the only organization that certifies off-farm inputs used in organic farming. Manufacturers aren’t required to use OMRI’s or WSDA’s services, but if the product is not approved by either organization, organic farmers who want to use it must get approval from their certifiers, Guerrero said.

In the aftermath of the controversy, OMRI is making greater efforts to collaborate with state and local officials. Sharing information among all parties could help prevent future incidents, he said.

OMRI also is increasing the number of on-site inspections it performs – announced and unannounced. Manufacturers are required to maintain on-site records, which must verify ingredients used going back five years. If a firm can’t meet those requirements, it won’t be able to participate in OMRI’s certification program, Guerrero said.

When you look at the hundreds of companies producing organic products, the incidence of fraud is low, but even one incident threatens consumer confidence, he said.

“Our previous (inspection) program was good, but more needs to be done.”

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