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'Spot checks will
make a difference.
But there won't be
continuity from
county to county,''
a market manager
in Berkeley says.

I feel ripped off
by the state,'
a farmer says.

September 1996

Farmers Markets Waiting for Organic Inspections

An agricultural commissioner
explains why it took so long to
 get inspection program started

County Ag Commissioners Wanted Assurances on Funding Before Starting Long-Delayed Audit Program

By the end of the year, state officials expect to start a "spot inspection" program that will give consumers more assurance that "registered organic" produce was grown, as advertised, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But first the state will have to persuade county agricultural commissioner's offices to go along with the plan. For now the county officials are stalling.

"They want to have further reporting on what the program involves, even though the program has already been worked on for two years by a committee that included four people from agricultural commissioner's offices," complained Charlotte Davis, the Department of Food and Agriculture's supervisor of organic standards.

The program, which was supposed to start July 1, will lead to unannounced inspections over the next two years of more than 700 of California's 1,800 "registered organic" farms and distributors. Those who are registered have paid a fee and filed a form with their county's agricultural commissioner claiming that they operate in compliance with the state's 1990 organic standards law. The law authorized the state agriculture department to start a spot inspection program. But it has taken until now to determine that the fees are generating enough revenue to pay for inspections, said Davis.

So inspections of registered organic growers to date have been virtually nonexistent. Unlike "certified organic" growers, who undergo regular inspections, registered organic growers are inspected only if someone files a complaint and shows some evidence that they are using illegal chemicals. Since 1990, only 51 such investigations have been carried out, according to state records. Officials found violations in 32 of the cases and levied a total of $17,300 in fines.

Davis said consumers can be confident that most food labeled organic in California is legitimate. But it wouldn't hurt the industry to have corroboration, she said. "The true spirit behind the spot inspection program is to assure that when people advertise produce as 'grown in accordance with organic standards act of 1990,' it is indeed organic to the best of our knowledge," explained Davis. "And it keeps those who are organic from having to face unfair competition" from those who say they are organic but aren't.

State officials are now waiting for the county commissioners to climb on board. "The ag commissioners are our ears and arms," explained Davis, who has delayed the start of a training program for commissioners until October, hoping their concerns will be addressed by then. Besides questions about exactly how the inspections will work, David Kruger, an inspector in the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner's office, said county officials also need assurance that there is adequate funding for the inspections. "Someone has to pay for it. And the commissioners don't have any money. That's the bottom line," Kruger said.

Davis said the state will reimburse the county offices for inspections and investigations according to a payment schedule worked out by the committee "It seemed to be acceptable. They were in agreement," Davis said, of the ag commissioner representatives on the committee.

According to critics of the organic registration program, the foot-dragging by the ag commissioners is a good indication of how some of them will implement the spot inspection program, once it finally begins. "I think spot checks will make a difference. But I'm not at all convinced there will be continuity from county to county," said Clem Clay, co-manager of the Berkeley farmers markets, which have a higher percentage of organic growers than any other major markets in the state. "Some agricultural commissioners will have a conflict of interest. Some will have a different philosophy," said Clay. They will not be able to provide the service that third-party certifiers offer, said Clay. "That is, in two words, independent verification."

Officials with California Certified Organic Growers, the largest certification association in the state with 650 members, support the spot inspection program. But they, too, aren't convinced it will be terribly effective. The state's spot inspections will be "much less thorough" than CCOF inspections, said Brian McElroy, the association's grower certification coordinator. CCOF growers pay anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for an annual inspection and one half of one percent of their organic sales as an association fee.

The spot inspections of registered growers will "consist mostly of an audit of books," said Kruger, of the Los Angeles County ag commissioner's office. Inspectors will look for records indicating that prohibited substances have been purchased or applied. Whatever its shortcomings, concluded McElroy, the program will "educate growers about the inspection process."

Most likely all organic growers will have to get certified within the next couple of years. A federal organic standards law was enacted in 1990, requiring third-party certification for everyone who sells produce labeled organic. Long-delayed regulations to implement the law are at last in final form. They should be released for public comment this fall and could go into effect next year.

In the meantime, in most farmers markets, conventional farmers and those sporting signs proclaiming their produce "registered organic," and "certified organic" line up side by side with still others who label their displays "pesticide free," a designation that has no legal meaning. Do consumers know the difference?

Officials with CCOF, whose members pay a pretty penny for the right to call themselves certified, certainly think consumers do. "The seal and name are very well recognized in the market place," said McElroy. "People have a lot of confidence in it." Clem Clay, co-manager of the Berkeley markets, is not quite so sure. "Some certainly do," he says "But not enough."

Jim Birch, of Flora Bella Farms in Three Rivers, one of the few certified growers in Los Angeles-area markets, has an even dimmer view of consumer awareness. "I feel that people don't know." He explains, every time someone asks, about the elaborate inspections that he has to undergo and about the fact that his "registered" competitors "don't have to do any of that." But Birch doesn't blame the registered farmers, most of whom want the inspection program that they feel they have paid for.

"Actually I feel ripped off by the state because I also have to pay fees to the state to be registered. I'm already paying CCOF for that same service, and the state doesn't provide me with that service," Birch said.

April 1997

Official Says Inspections Have Impact Despite Skimpy Enforcement Budget

At a session on organic standards at the Farm Conference sponsored by the University of California’s Small Farm Center in February, Marin County Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen refuted criticisms of the delay in starting spot inspections under the California's organic registration program. The program now covers about 1,900 farmers and produce handlers, who pay annual fees of as much as $2,000 for farmers with more than $5 million in production, down to $25 for farmers with less than $10,000 in crops. It doesn’t add up to a great deal of money, Carlsen said.

The spot inspections, which are now underway, will be funded at a rate of $25,000 per year to be divided among the 54 agricultural commissioner’s offices according to the number of registered organic farmers in each county. The program will provide a separate amount of up to $10,000 per year to pay for complaint investigations. For Marin County, the spot inspection program will have to make do on $420 a year, which will enable the agricultural commissioner’s office to conduct about a dozen inspections, Carlsen said.

Despite the minimal funding for organic inspections, officials have had an impact, Carlsen said. Complaint investigations have yielded 54 citations since 1990 and officials have collected more than $48,000 in fines ($30,000 of that in one case against a Sonoma County apple grower last year).

"You can see we’ve stepped on a few toes," Carlsen said. But he acknowledged that the budget limitations have an impact on enforcement. "The frustration level is with us too, because we see people who we think may not be up to snuff," he said. But officials can’t afford the extensive and costly investigation that it would take to find out for sure, he said.

Marin County officials have already carried out their full year allotment of inspections. While they levied no civil penalties, they cited one organic producer for illegally commingling organic and conventional produce at a farmers market. Carlsen said he considered that a serious violation but will not impose financial penalties unless the problem recurs.

While the number of California farms with registered organic acreage approaches 2,000, there are about 650 certified organic farms in California covering about 75,000 certified acres, said Bowman of CCOF, the accrediting association for most of them. Certified organic growers have to submit to extensive, mandatory inspections by an independent association like CCOF, which has a budget of $730,000 a year and a staff of 10.

If a federal organic standards law ever takes effect, all organic farmers will have to be certified. Congress passed such a law, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. But federal agricultural officials still haven’t completed work on regulations to implement the law. Federal organic certification, once thought to be imminent, now seems to be fading further into the future.

At the earliest, the federal law could take effect two years from now, said Suzanne Vaupel, a lawyer in Sacramento who follows organic regulations. "I think it may happen eventually -- and some of us may still be alive to see it," she said.

An unscientific survey by Seasonal Chef last summer of 22 farmers markets, half in northern and the other half in southern California, found that one-quarter of the 375 market displays counted at Northern California markets and one-fifth of the 401 displays at Southern California markets claimed to be either certified or registered organic. Four-fifths of the Southern California organic farmers were registered organic while just over half of the Northern California farmers were certified.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef