The Farmer and the Feds

Will government control change the face of organics?

Entering the second year of the fully implemented National Organic Program, we are beginning to see the NOP's impact on a grassroots movement gone "mainstream." Those of us whose business relies on support from a local community or membership have a tremendous opportunity and challenge ahead as we attempt to fit into the confines of the National Organic Rule (CFR 205) while also attempting to support local producers and suppliers of organic products. Many see the regulation to be problematic, and indeed, it is not free from its demons. There are, however, some benefits of the program that may assist us if we know how to use them. Those benefits include: access to sources of organic products, the ability to verify the organic status of an operation, and a complaint and compliance department and procedures--all important to you and to your membership.

Benefits

Finding organic products: Many cooperatives' goals are based on the vision of creating local food systems--which is much more difficult than it sounds. Until recently, just getting a list of local organic producers or handlers was difficult or impossible. Today, under the National Organic Program (NOP), a list of producers and products can be gotten from a certifier on request. The Cost Share program--which refunded 75% up to $500 of an operation's certification fees for certification granted between September 30, 2002, and October 1, 2003--has had the additional effect of bringing those producer lists into the hands of the states' Departments of Agriculture.

The result? If you're looking for local organic farmers or products, now you should be able to find out where they are. Certifiers are listed on the NOP site, along with their contact information. Each one has a different policy for how they release lists or information to the public, so you need to ask how to get the information you want and be as specific as possible. Most Departments of Ag will be happy to share information with you, since it assists them in promoting their state's agriculture.

Verification of certification: Each organic operation is now required by law either to be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier or to be able to document that it fits into the small farm exemption in the regulations. Producers have several ways they can document certification, depending on who their certifier is. In most cases you can request a copy of their certificate, a letter or fax from their certifier, or a "transaction certificate," which is a document that attests to the organic status of a particular load or lot. In the case of using just a certificate, you need to learn to read them--which may take some help from the issuing certifier.

Certificates no longer expire under the NOP; however, the operation must annually renew its certification and be inspected. In case of doubt or confusion, contact the certifier to clarify what the certificate says. The certifier's name, address and telephone number must appear on the certificate, as well as the name and address of the certified operation, the effective date of certification, categories of organic operation, including crops, wild crops, livestock, or processed products produced by the certified operation. Buyers usually want to know whether a specific product or crop is certified. If the certificate is not specific enough, it is best to contact the certifier for verification. Don't be shy about this--certifiers get these questions all the time and should be happy to respond. Likewise, share this information with your customers. Many of them really do have questions, and as a certifier I always feel good about being able to assure a consumer that the product they are buying really was raised under organic practices.

How do you find out if the certification has been revoked? Once an operation is certified, its certification remains intact until surrendered by the organic operation or suspended or revoked by the certifying agent, the state organic program's governing state official, or the NOP. The NOP then places the name of the suspended or revoked operation on its website. A regular check of that site will keep you informed of actions that have been taken.

Complaints and enforcement: One of the most important features of the NOP is the compliance department. This division receives complaints about organic products and investigates them. Once a complaint is received, the certifier in question is contacted by the compliance officer with a letter describing the allegations from the complainant concerning the products in question and giving the certifier a set time to investigate and respond. It is up to the certifier to address the complaints and document their findings to the officer. Appropriate actions are taken within a specific time frame if the product or label are found to be out of compliance.

While I cannot stress too much the importance of making complaints only after your own serious look at a product or operation, once you are fairly certain that there is a real problem, you should contact the NOP compliance department about it. This is the only way that the program can be enforced, and any regulatory program is only as good as its enforceability. Don't expect things to happen immediately, since investigations take time. But action will eventually be taken if the complaint is valid.

The future is up to us

One year in, the NOP has taken an important step for the industry and the challenges ahead--a step for consistency, transparency, and marketability. However, in examining our maturing industry, measurement is good only if defined and applied effectively. The organic "movement" needs to embrace this reality and run with it, or big business will define it.

The definition of "organic" is not solely dependent upon its regulation. Definition is also about consumer perception, which can be a very effective tool when integrated into a business strategy. It is important to tell the stories of who you and your producers are within the organic and natural foods industry. Putting the "face" of the grocer and the producer/handler on the product is your most powerful strategy against big business competition.

To quote Mark King, the retail representative and newly elected chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, "The challenges we face include increased competition for market share. Great local products and sound information go a long way in maintaining sound market (member) relations. Co-ops are special not just because they provide great products, but also because they offer a place to be; a place for consumers to receive valuable information."

It is the cooperative vision of developing community that is the defining mechanism for their future. Celebrations, festivals, and farmers markets are powerful opportunities for real one-on-one marketing and offer welcome contrast to the media advertising that is developed by marketing experts with the goal of bringing in the mainstream consumer for the next great (cheap) deal. Providing the informative tools about the NOP to your consumers offers them more clearly defined choices in the marketplace and the ability to understand what they really are supporting with their food dollars. In turn they develop the feeling that you are "their" grocer.

The NOP as a one-year old is certainly no perfect angel and likely never will be. No government program can effect change on a personal level through person-to-person contact. But as retailers, with the last hands on the product before it reaches the consumers, you have the opportunity to be the most effective in educating, serving, and speaking to your local communities. Federal regulations or not, cooperatives, community supported farms, and buying clubs exist because their community wants them.

In this new world of organics we are going to see great change. As big business moves into organic production and handling, it is good to know that there is a process to assure consistency and enforcement. But the "even playing field" that was dreamed of may be a curse as well as a blessing. The real power is in what ends up on the plates of consumers, and that is most often chosen at the retail level.

How you choose to support local organic food systems cannot be regulated. It is up to retailers, as buyers, to choose products and inform the public as to why that choice is important, and in that exchange to empower the consumer through education about what those choices mean. And in that exchange lies the ability to change agriculture--one plate at a time--into the community's vision of what it should be.

See other articles from this issue: #110 January - February - 2004