Quality Assurance International suspended the organic certification of Vander Eyk Dairy on May 16 for noncompliance. The suspension initially suggested that the third-party certification process is effective and working. But uncertainty surfaced on Monday when Case Vander Eyk said the dairy would reapply for certification through another certifier.
In a story in Capital Press, Vander Eyk said his company was re-applying and should be "back in a couple of weeks." He also said that he did not know the reason for his suspension by QAI.
"The fact that he says he [Vander Eyk] has no idea why he was suspended is a mystery to us," said Joe Smillie, vice president of QAI. "We have gone through the required procedure and he has received voluminous correspondence from us."
According to the Smillie, recertification won't be as simple as hopping to another certifier. Vander Eyk will have to provide all the reasons for suspension and either remedy the issues or convince the new certifier that he is not in violation. Further, the United States Department of Agriculture will have to approve the recertification.
"If this [recertification] happens, if will truly be a travesty of justice and an illustration that the USDA cares nothing about the integrity of organics or the integrity of the certification system," said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute.
The Pixley, California-based dairy producer owns about 3,500 organic cows out of 10,000 head of cattle.
"A lot of people are saying they should not have been certified in the first place," said Sam Fromartz, author of Organic Inc., and the blog ChewsWise.com. "There are lots of questions surrounding this case and if QAI is not going to be transparent, it's hard to know what's really going on."
"Their certification was suspended because they are not in compliance with the USDA regulations," said Smillie. "The rest is confidential. It's in their file and the USDA knows, but we are not at liberty to discuss the details."
However, Smillie confirmed that suspension would not result from a minor infraction; that serious concerns must be present.
Kastel, who talked to officials from the USDA connected to the original letter of noncompliance, claims some of the suspected issues for suspension were serious record keeping issues, identity of livestock and lack of access to pasture. Kastel said the first two items could be subsequent to the original certification, but that the lack of access to pasture is a critical issue.
"Through satellite imagery we have been able to confirm that the animals on this farm have no access to pasture and had none when it was first certified by QAI," said Kastel.
"Access to pasture" has become a subject of debate; an under-defined and over-interpreted phrase in the organic regulations. While some would call it free grazing, others have organic dairy cows enclosed in indoor feed lots.
"Access to pasture is a big issue for the industry," said Joan Shaffer, Office of Public Affairs, Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA. "The original legislation lacks specificity and there is a rule being written now that will clarify the issue." Shaffer said the rule is in clearance and will be released "as soon as it is ready."
For the time being, it's "wait and see," both on redefining the regulations and on the consistency and effectiveness of certifying bodies on organic dairy. With the level of attention on the Vander Eyk case, there's liable to be some precedent setting, and some finger-pointing.
"Here we have been critical of QAI and finally they step in and take some action," said Kastel. "If the USDA overrules them, this is going to be really bad."
"Does this system work or not?" said Fromartz. "If recertification happens, it will raise the question of whether or not certification is worth anything. I think the National Organic Program is aware of this question, and it would be prudent of them to step up to the plate and add some transparency to this process."