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Bill would further criminalize synthetic spiking of organic fertilizer

Some organic farms have unknowing used fertilizers spiked with synthetic nitrogen, and therefore, some organic shoppers, paying a premium for organic, have been duped, prompting California lawmakers to introduce a bill that more closely regulates organic fertilizer manufacturing.

Authored by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, Assembly Bill 856, aims to increase penalties for violations of organic fertilizer standards, enhance the authority state regulators have to enforce the law and allocate more than $415,000 annually for enforcement, which will be raised by imposing additional fees on fertilizer makers. The legislation is currently on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk awaiting his signature.

The legislation is supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. While a state mandate, this legislation would have a rippling effect because California farms account for about 60 percent of the nation’s acreage that is dedicated to the production of organic fruits, vegetables and nuts.

The tainted fertilizers were allegedly manufactured by California Liquid Fertilizer, a company operating in the Salinas area that sells to industry giants, including Earthbound Farm and Driscoll’s. It’s currently banned from organic farms, but from June 2004 when the state discovered the problem to January 2007 when the product was finally forced off the organic market, food grown in the fertilizer and considered organic was likely sold in supermarkets, according to Caballero’s office.

“This is needed because it seemed like nothing happened to violators,” said Aracely Campa, Caballero’s legislative director. “Before, all they would get is a $500 penalty and that really didn’t do much. Now, it would be beefed up so that the penalties can go up to $10,000 for knowingly adulterating the products.”

The bill also would allow inspectors to have more and better access to inspect fertilizer-manufacturing facilities. Samples will be taken at various stages of production to ensure that what’s on the label is what is being produced, Campa said.

Shortly after the state accused California Liquid Fertilizer of allegedly spiking its product, federal agents raided fertilizer maker Port Organic Products, a Bakersfield manufacturer that is considered a leader in the California organic market. The manufacturer was accused of stocking thousands of gallons of aqua ammonia, a synthetic nitrogen. The state Department of Food and Agriculture has since discovered other fertilizer makers in violation.

The bill has received praise from many in the organic farming industry, certification groups and even the fertilizer industry.

“We all worked on the language now before the governor, and I think it shows there was a need,” Campa said. “They said something needs to be done, and consumers and their dollars need to be protected and know that when they buy organic, they are getting organic.”

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said it is “outrageous” that consumers are being sold products labeled organic that are contaminated with non-organic material. He said California’s move to give its enforcement efforts more teeth will help set an example for the rest of the country.

“The government has hidden behind the ‘we don’t regulate fertilizer labels; that’s up to the states,’ so at least California is taking some action,” he said. “We don’t want anything being called organic that is toxic, or unhealthy. If we let this develop … it will make people not trust organic.”

The Bill also would require verification that the applicant is a manufacturer or distributor of fertilizing material. The bill would increase the licensing fee from $200 to up to $300 and require registration of each differing label for organic input material and a fee up to $500. Existing law requires semiannual reporting by manufacturers. The new law would not only impose a fee for a late report, but it also would revoke licensing if reports are more than 90 days past due. Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bill.

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