Natural Foods Merchandiser

California faces organic "Fertilizergate"

The state of California, organic certifiers and the Organic Trade Association are scrambling to prevent future contamination of organic produce and combat a burgeoning scandal that's been dubbed "Fertilizergate."

Several manufacturers of organic liquid fertilizer have been the target of California government investigations, accused of spiking their products with ingredients that aren't approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Port Organic Products, which is estimated to have supplied as much as half of the liquid fertilizer used on California's organic farms, was raided by federal agents in January. California Liquid Fertilizer was suspected of similar violations and pulled its products from the market two years ago. And the Sacramento Bee reported that another company stopped selling its organic fertilizer in late 2007 amid a state investigation.

The result of all this alleged fertilizer fraud is that portions of recent harvests of California produce weren't really organic. This is a significant problem for the organics industry because California is estimated to supply nearly 60 percent of the nation's organic vegetables, fruits and nuts. San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm, the world's largest grower of organic produce, used California Liquid Fertilizer's Biolizer XN before it was recalled.

"Since the NOP took affect in 2002, this is really the big scandal, if you will," said Peggy Miars, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies about 80 percent of California's organic acreage. "This is the first issue of its kind that has really impacted organic [regulations], so it's a wake-up call for the industry."

The fertilizer companies are accused of adding either ammonium sulfate or aqua ammonia to their products to increase the amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential to plant growth and is particularly important to heavy-feeding, shallow-rooted ground crops such as strawberries or lettuce. According to NOP standards, the nitrogen in organic fertilizers must come from natural sources such as fish, meat, feathers, manure or produce trimmings. But this can be pricey for manufacturers. Industry sources speculate that fertilizers that use nonorganic ingredients like ammonia can cost as little as one-twentieth per pound of nitrogen compared to organic fertilizers.

The organics industry is taking fertilizer fraud cases very seriously. CCOF executives met with NOP officials on Feb. 11 to update them on the fertilizer problems, and "we expect NOP to address that in the near future," Miars said.

CCOF also instituted a new liquid fertilizer approval policy stating that as of Aug. 15, manufacturers of liquid fertilizers selected by CCOF must undergo third-party site inspections. And on Jan. 30, CCOF announced that it would begin its own testing of liquid fertilizers. Companies like Earthbound Farm are doing their own testing as well.

California lawmakers are also considering legislation that would give the California Department of Food and Agriculture more authority to impose fines and penalties on companies that manufacture fake organic fertilizer.

And the Organic Trade Association announced Feb. 16 that it has convened a task force to develop an industry standard for verification of fertilizers and other products used in organic farming. The task force, which is made up of growers, manufacturers, certifiers and inspectors, is expected to finalize standards in June and forward them to the NOP, said OTA Executive Director Christine Bushway.

At issue is how the organic standards for fertilizers and other crop aids, known as "agricultural inputs," are regulated and enforced. Currently, most organic certifiers rely on two NOP-approved nonprofits—Portland, Ore.-based Organic Materials Review Institute and the Washington State Department of Agriculture—to certify these types of materials.

OMRI, which certified both the Port Organic and California Liquid Fertilizer products, may simply be too underfunded to do extensive reviews on the 1,600 or so products it certifies, Miars said, although she emphasized that "we do believe they are qualified to do material reviews."

OMRI is funded by fees from manufacturers that want their products reviewed, and also through donations and subscriptions from certifiers and organic farmers. It works with more than 57 organic certifiers who represent about 95 percent of the U.S.'s organic farmers, according to OMRI Marketing Director Miguel Guerrero.

Noting that "We review a lot of products, and sometimes things go through," Guerrero said his organization has decertified Port Organic and California Liquid Fertilizer products.

According to Guerrero and OMRI Executive Director Dave DeCou, OMRI does "desk audits," analyzing product composition information provided by the manufacturer and then verifying it against reference information and the company's extensive database to see if the product claims match the ingredients and analysis. Sometimes, OMRI conducts unannounced site inspections and random product inspections.

Guerrero said in the future, "We will be stepping up facility visits and we will do more internal re-evaluations of products and more product samplings." He said OMRI is also working with federal and state governments on civil and criminal investigations of companies that supply fraudulent organics information to OMRI.

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