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Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s
‘Situational’ Standard

Our piece, ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Raises Consumer Doubts About Organic Definition, brought a number of responses. One pithy note came in response to a point we made comparing a violation of kosher requirements with a violation of organic standards. As we wrote:

It is not really a question of evil intent or not; it is a question of consumer protection. If a Kosher hot dog manufacturer in good faith orders kosher beef but a vendor delivers pork and it is put into hot dogs and shipped, that hot dog manufacturer has to recall the hot dogs as they are falsely labeled and then the entire plant has to be made kosher again through a process involving both cleaning and rabbinic authorization.

This is not to punish the hot dog manufacturer but to protect consumers who wish to pay for kosher food.

Why would organic consumers merit any lesser protection?

Which brought this response from the head of the Cornell Kosher Food Initiative and one of the world’s preeminent authorities on kosher food:

Interesting issue. You’re right on with respect to the kosher analogy for the organic folks.

Joe Regenstein
Professor, Food Science
Department of Food Science
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University

A less academic response came from an important industry executive:

This position from your piece, ‘Spiked’ Organic Fertilizer Raises Consumer Doubts About Organic Definition, is absolutely incredible.

The nonprofit California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies about 80 percent of the state’s organic acreage, decided not to penalize farms that had used the product on the grounds that farmers did not know they were using an unapproved chemical…

It’s not about punishing farmers or not. It’s about protecting the integrity of the standards and meeting the definition of what is allowed on a crop to market it as organic. I empathize with the farmers for not knowing their supplier was not above board. However, the standards to meet their certification should have nothing to do with the financial or supply ramifications for farmers, no matter what the reason.

If we start granting variances every time a bad actor gets in the mix, we might as well just pick whatever standards fit the situation at the time so we can still market the products as organic and the consumers beware.

— Eric Schwartz
Salyer American Fresh Foods
Monterey, California

Both Professor Regenstein and Eric Schwartz are correct. The whole concept is a betrayal of consumer trust and would be viewed as fraud against the consumer in any other context.

The problem is really that California Certified Organic Farmers is, in fact, a producers’ group and not a consumer group. The organization proclaims that “CCOF promotes and supports organic food and agriculture…” which is a completely different mission than, say, “Ensuring consumers that they get what they pay for when they buy organic.”

If you are generous, you say that the premise of the organization is that consumers want to eat not just organic today but that they want to see the range and availability of organics increase, so according to this premise consumers would rather cut producers some slack under difficult situations because this will encourage an increase in organic production and in firms electing to produce organic product. After all, if the penalty for having an unethical supplier is a massive recall and then three years of penance while the land gets recertified as organic, many will hesitate to invest in going organic.

If you are more cynical, you will say that the producers who control CCOF are watching their own P & Ls and are creating a kind of situational standard that avoids their paying a heavy cost.

Our take is that when organic was a small community, it was reasonable to think that consumers, deeply committed to organic, would have thought it important to encourage the growth of the organic industry. Today, however, the typical organic consumer is some mom at Wal-Mart buying organic baby food or milk, and the mom has no connection to the “organic community.”

These people are just being tricked because the organic standards are too situational.

Right now, producers are still of the mindset that allowing the industry to avoid expensive recalls and recertifications is what most helps the industry. But as word gets out that a consumer can’t be certain that the organic product he or she is about to buy — typically at a premium — is actually organic, consumers will start to keep their money in their pockets.

Much of the interest in local is rooted in distrust that large national organic producers actually care about their customers. News such as this will only encourage that belief.

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