Psst ? Wanna buy some ?organic? food?
The 2002 establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s National Organic Program was designed to eliminate ambiguous transactions. Nonetheless, some manufacturers are purchasing ingredients with nothing more than an assurance from their suppliers that the ingredients are organic. And when the products are finished, their labels proudly proclaim their organic status.
There?s just one problem: There?s a chance the ingredients aren?t organic, at least according to USDA standards.
?People are coming into the [organic foods] industry in larger numbers,? said Steve Taormina, standards manager for New Hope Natural Media, the Boulder, Colo.-based publisher of The Natural Foods Merchandiser. ?They don?t understand the rules and regulations of the NOP. They?re buying ingredients on good faith.?
Though veterans of the organic industry are intimately familiar with the organic rule they championed for so many years, newcomers are often unaware that there?s a central repository of information—the USDA?s Web site.
Chris Monnette, president of Caffe Botanica, a Eugene, Ore., producer of herb-infused coffees, found that out the hard way. When he submitted his product for consideration in a trade show, an official asked to see the certificate vouching for the coffee beans? organic status. ?It was organic. I just was not aware of how it was documented,? Monnette said.
While attending a coffee trade show, he noticed a booth encouraging attendees to learn about certification. ?I went in and asked. It was the first time I heard of ?certified organic,?? Monnette said. Fortunately, he found out before he had shipped any product.
?There?s probably medium to small companies that are not aware of [the organic rule],? said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. ?It?s not until [a product] gets to a shelf or a show that we say, ?Well, prove it.??
And, sometimes, in the process of fielding questions about specific markets, OTA staffers find that new companies don?t know the ins and outs of organics. The industry has been proactive in educating manufacturers and retailers, DiMatteo said—?We?ve been contacting a lot of people saying, ?Did you know this,? when we?ve looked at their labels?—but acknowledged there?s always room to do more.
Laura Kline thought the teas she was importing from a family friend?s farm in Taiwan were good to go. She had a certificate from the Taiwanese government confirming there was no pesticide residue in the soil samples she submitted.
But for the U.S. retail market, that?s not enough. Without certification by a USDA-authorized third party, she can?t sell it as organic tea.
Having been in the organic industry only six months—and as a side job, at that—Kline is frustrated with what she perceives as a Catch-22. ?I do understand that you have to be able to trust the label,? she said. But, ?when you go from country to country everyone has a different definition of what?s organic.?
Kline sees the NOP as somewhat ethnocentric. ?The United States is saying, ?Our way of organic is the only way and the best way?? It?s a little bit frustrating, but I do understand there have to be rules.?
Like Monnette, Kline had not yet begun to market the teas to retailers when she found out she could not legally call her product organic. ?A lot of what I?ve been selling is to family and friends.? Now, Kline says she?s going to have to change her marketing strategy. ?I?m going to have to sell it, unfortunately, as a natural product and not an organic product [and] focus on selling it in bulk. If I?m selling it in bulk I can take my label off it and I can take it into a restaurant.? Alternately, she?s considering selling the tea ?to somebody else who likes it enough and can put their own label on it.?
Monnette and Kline agree there?s a steep learning curve in the organic foods industry. ?I think I would probably spend more time with trade associations ? asking a lot more questions,? if he were to do it over, Monnette said.
Despite Kline?s frustration, she remains committed to the organic lifestyle, and plans to open an organic restaurant in Los Angeles. ?I?m still very excited,? she said. ?I?m not going to let that deter me at all.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 4/p. 7, 16