Natural Foods Merchandiser

National Program a Culture Shock for Certifiers

On Oct. 21, organic's transformation from an independent agricultural movement to a federally administered program will be complete. This process has been smooth for some members of the supply chain and their operations will differ little. But for the certification agencies, the cultural changes could be dramatic.

In the past, certification agencies acted as educators, partnering with producers and farmers to create a viable organic industry. Under the NOP, they will be the frontline agents in the federal government's regulatory compliance program, and their actions, while not completely tethered, will be more codified. But according to many in the industry, systemic changes were needed.

"Historically, [certifiers] and inspectors both gave a lot of informal assistance to people they inspected," said Margaret Scoles, executive director, Independent Organic Inspectors Association, Broadus, Mont. Agents would simultaneously inspect operations and advise clients on how to remedy areas of noncompliance. "That is absolutely not allowed anymore."

"It was kind of a we're-in-this-with-you attitude," said Marty Mesh, executive director, Florida Organic Growers and Quality Certification Services.

But to comply with the NOP, certification agencies must have their regulations, operations and internal structures accredited by the USDA. "They must certify to the rule and only the rule," said Jim Riddle, president of Organic Independents, a consultancy based in Winona, Minn.

Licensed agencies will grant usage of the word organic, so there must not be any deviations from the rule. The procedures for certifiers are prescribed.

Everyone wanted national uniformity, said Mesh, chairman, Organic Trade Association's Certifiers Council. When agency X and agency Y certify to the same standard, consumers can trust the word organic when they see it. When certification companies wrote their own standards, some used the leeway to cheat, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director, Organic Farming Research Foundation.

As recently as the 1980s, certification organizations were informal, regional groups that promoted organic methods to their producer and farmer clients and fought sometimes bitterly among themselves about whose standards were more appropriate. "It was the Balkans all over again," said Scowcroft, who served as director for Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers from 1987 to 1992.

Scowcroft was hired to make CCOF a more professional organization. But all that meant was filing yearly tax returns and paying employees on a regular basis. Scowcroft said many early agencies didn't even have written regulations. "There was clearly a 'movement' feel."

The agencies will now be accredited as professional by the federal government, and working with their new boss will be one of the major challenges. "I'd say the relationship has been strained so far," Mesh said. "But hopefully we're making improvements."

The USDA has proven to be a somewhat meddling boss that gets involved when it shouldn't and other times leaves things to its agents when they need direction. The most egregious example was the early May statement by USDA on the NOP's scope .

"Some of these totally new sectors, like fertilizers, personal care products and aquatic species, are production systems that will take some specially designed standards and approved materials," Riddle said. "USDA issued [the "Policy Statement on National Organic Program Scope"] without consulting the certifiers, NOSB or OTA. It just kind of came down from above and now we're the ones that have to deal with it, without any guidance."

The certification culture will change, and to a certain degree that was expected. To retain a bit of the old style, some certification organizations are working around the rules and creating separate entities to provide educational resources for new farmers and processors. "Our role has changed," said Brian Leahy, current director of CCOF. "But we'll still be doing what we've done for 30 years—certifying organic operations."

Indeed, everything has changed. The first year Leahy started farming, taking 100 acres of corn and beans organic, the local paper called his effort a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the food chain.

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 6: Federal Program Little Help For Foreign Trade
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 7/p. 7

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