By mid-May, only four foreign entities had been accredited to certify organic production and handling operations to comply with the NOP. Although the USDA said that more organizations would be accredited before October, the international certifier shortage could hamstring overseas organic manufacturers looking to do business in the United States.
"I was surprised at the small number of international [certifiers]," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association.
"If more names aren't added, there's going to be a serious disruption of trade," said Joe Smilie, president of QAI Int'l. in San Diego, an accredited domestic certifier.
USDA spokeswoman Jessica Faust said no entities had been denied accreditation at this point, and more names will be added to the list. While that's reassuring, having to worry whether their certification agent will be accredited to the NOP standards in time is only one of the hurdles faced by the foreign manufacturers seeking to sell certified organic products in this country.
Most international organizations' standards are similar to the NOP's in intent, purpose and philosophy, but vary slightly in content and approach. Efforts to create equivalency agreements between the United States and its trading partners, which would streamline the process for manufacturers, are stalled. And the absence of national, mandatory regulations in most countries further tethers foreign companies and international trade.
Rapunzel Organics, with headquarters in Germany, has been preparing for the NOP since the program was announced. Eckhardt Kiesel, president of its American division, said the company will be ready by October, but there have been challenges. "I don't know of anybody who would say, when it comes to inspection and certification, that this rule makes it easier for the transfer from Europe," Kiesel said.
There are ingredients and processing aids that are acceptable in other programs, but no longer available to manufacturers wanting to claim in the United States that their products are 100 percent certified organic. For example, Rapunzel sells 100 percent organic bouillon in Germany. In the United States, the product qualifies as 50 percent organic because the yeast Rapunzel uses isn't on NOP's list of allowable ingredients.
Sorting through what's allowed where could be made easier by equivalency agreements, official endorsements of a country's regulatory standards, between the United States and its trading partners. If such agreements were made, products would move more freely, but there are various obstacles.
"The barrier that real trade is going to encounter is that the EU is not really a unified country; it's a federation of independent countries," said DiMatteo. "And those countries are allowed under the EU regulation to have additional requirements."
Bargaining with each country will be time consuming. And trade negotiations are politically charged, so agreements on organic standards could face delays.
These agreements are also difficult to define with countries that don't have mandatory, national standards. There are 56 countries with working regulations. Of those, 32 have implemented them. Many regulations, however, are voluntary and don't carry much weight among trade representatives.
One such country with voluntary regulations is Canada, where only one organization has so far been accredited. Wallace Ham of ProCert Organics in Saskatchewan believes his government could have done more for its organic industry. "What's happening in Canada is an embarrassment," Ham said. "At present, we have Third-World status in terms of organic regulations in the international food trade. It's hurting producers, processors, handlers and traders in Canada."
Without equivalency agreements, foreign companies must be certified by NOP-accredited organizations. DiMatteo was optimistic that more names would be added to the list, or that traders would find a way to work around the problem.
Domestic entities could contract with individual overseas certifiers, creating a network of freelance agents, said QAI's Smilie, who believes a trade interruption is likely. "Unless you're certified by a certification organization that is accredited by the USDA, you can't put organic products on the shelves in the United States," he said.
Series Part 1: Retailers Ready For The National Organic Program
Series Part 2: Fine Line Between Certification And Responsibility For Organic Retailers
Series Part 3: NOP Just For Food Products
Series Part 4: Certified Organic Delis Offer Opportunities And Challenges
Series Part 5: Farmers Ready To Face Production, Financial Challenges
Series Part 7: National Program a Culture Shock for Certifiers
Series Part 8: Distributors Score High Marks for Organic Commitment
Series Part 9: California Retailer Turns a New Leaf on Organic Retailing
Series Part 10: Consumers Know Not What They Eat
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 6/p. 9, 18