A bad apple

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP standards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My niece in Wisconsin recently bought two bags of organic apples from a grocery store owned by a large corporate food chain. The first bag was filled with tasty, slightly irregularly shaped, organic apples. When she opened the second bag, the apples were very uniform, larger, waxed and far less tasty. Then she noticed that they had a tag on them. The first bag didn’t have PLU tags on the apples. The PLU numbers on the second bag’s apples, she determined after some research, indicated that they were conventionally produced, not organic apples. She dumped out the rest of the bag to find a few untagged, smaller, more irregular apples in the bottom.

While my niece bought the apples on sale, the organic apples were still higher priced than the non-organic ones at the same store. She paid a premium price because she is concerned about feeding her children as few pesticides as possible. She is also a supporter of small farmers and the methods organic growers use to produce food. She grows much of what her family eats and supports local producers whenever she can.

She was cheated.

Organically produced food is more expensive for many reasons. One of those reasons is that in order for food to be sold as “organic,” it’s production, processing and distribution must be inspected and certified by a third party certifier. These certifiers are approved by the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP). Along with the USDA’s green and white organic seal, organic food must also carry the name of the authorized certifier which certified it or it cannot legally be sold as “organic.” If a product is labelled as “100% organic,” all contents must be certified organic. If it is labelled simply as “organic,” no more than 5% of it’s ingredients can be uncertified. If a product contains at least 70% certified organic ingredients, it can be labelled “made with organic.” Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may not be labelled as organic, but the certified organic ingredients may be listed in the list of ingredients.

There are producers and processors who complain that the NOP requirements are too expensive, too burdensome, irrelevant and not necessary. All of those criticisms are true to some extent. The standards and the process of certification are not perfect.

Certification is expensive. Every farm is inspected annually. The farmer must keep track of all production, which field it grew on, where it was stored. Records must balance. Crops grown are compared with crops in the bin and crops sold. Parallel production of crops is discouraged, but if the farm grows both organic and non-organic crops, storage and handling of each must be planned for and documented. All the records and inspections are reviewed by the certifier to try to be sure that what the farmer or the processor says he does is carried out in practice.

Certifiers are inspected by the USDA to see if they are following the rules. If they certify crops for export they are also inspected by IFOAM, an international certification agency.

This may seem like an unnecessary pile of paperwork and regulation just to put an organic stamp on an apple. When my husband and I began farming organically, foods were not certified as organic. Anyone could slap an organic claim on anything, and as organic products’ popularity grew, that is exactly what happened.There were no standards and no rules. Consumers were often paying more for something they weren’t getting. Independent certifiers began inspecting and putting a guarantee on foods before the legislation for the National Organic Program was passed, but each certifier set their own standards. It was the organic farmers and processors who, with some trepidation, asked for our industry to develop standards and a guarantee for our customers.

If you are buying organic food from someone close enough for you to check on, then you can decide what food production and processing practices you are willing to pay for. If the apples you buy come from Washington, then you need some kind of third party guarantee that they are grown and handled according to some rules and standards. That is what the green and white organic seal means. The National Organic Standards list what can’t be used in organically labeled products. The standards also set out rules about practices that must be met. There are rules about segregation of organic production from conventionally produced foods. There are rules for how much of animals feed must come from pastures, rules about soil building and conservation, biodiversity and water contamination.

Yes, the bag of apples my niece bought carried a green and white USDA stamp. The rules, paperwork, and certification did not prevent the store from selling her a bag of apples that was only partially organic. It could have been that the packer deliberately mixed the bag, the wholesaler re-bagged them, or the grocer, to ensure a profit while putting the apples on sale, re-bagged them at the store. Someone in the chain was being dishonest.

Organic certification gave my niece some recourse when she discovered she’d been cheated. She could call the certifier listed on the bag. She could file a complaint with the USDA. She could call the processor and grocer to let them know she is aware of the rules.

My niece returned the apples to the store, called the certifier and posted a complaint on the Facebook page of the company whose logo was on the bag. The company got back to her within minutes. The certifier took a little longer. I encouraged her to file a complaint with the USDA if she wasn’t satisfied with their answers.

That’s why organic food has a little green and white label.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains