Nearly 100 third party certifiers do the leg work behind that familiar green seal on the organic food you buy. They are farmers' associations, nonprofits, state departments of agriculture, businesses, and other organizations. They are accredited to certify different steps of the organic food production process.
Each organization is different. Their job qua certifier is to ensure that growers and producers stay chemical fertilizer- and pesticide-free, but that doesn't necessarily say anything about their positions on other food issues: source of food, treatment of workers, and so forth.
Below the fold is an introduction to third party certifiers.
The USDA calls third party organic certifiers Accredited Certifying Agents (ACAs). There are 95 total ACAs: 55 from the US and 40 foreign. Thirty-six different US states have at least one ACA. California alone, not surprisingly, has 13, almost 1/4 of all US ACAs, and they're all in Berkeley...juuuust kidding. The agriculture departments of 14 states (Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington) are ACAs. In two other states, different government entities are certifiers: the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission.
One organization, Integrity Certified International (Nebraska), which became accredited (PDF) April 29, 2002, surrendered its accreditation October 31, 2006. I couldn't find any information on why they did this, but it could just be that they decided to focus on priorities other than running a certification program.
Another organization, American Food Safety Institute International (Wisconsin), had its accreditation revoked, the first revocation in the history of the NOC. AFSII "allowed an organic farm to use banned chemicals and broke several other federal regulations" (Dallas Morning News - PDF). More:
A report from the [National Organic Program] investigation said the company certified a seed farm that was treated with banned chemicals even after another certifier turned the farm down for that reason.Whoops! Now what kind of company would do stupid things like that?
It also allowed a bottled-water company to use the USDA Organic label despite federal rules against designating water as organic.
American Food Safety is a four-person company overseeing about 30 organic operations in seven states and Mexico, according to USDA records.I'm not going to turn this into an investigative diary on a chemical company, but there are a few odd things about AFSI that I couldn't pass up. It was run out of the founder's car as late as 1999. In 2000, when its headquarters were finally located in something without wheels, AFSI (not to be confused with AFSII, which was separate) gave birth to The High Sierra Chemical Company. (Source: link below)
It is part of the High Sierra Group, which also owns companies that make specialty chemicals for the food industry. [Ibid]
Now, the group could be a decent organization apart from its organic certification noncompliance -- I'm not going to pull a Seymour Hersh here and write a 10,000-word article on it -- but it certainly violated its own core principles on this one:
Be honest, forthright and candid with each customer. The customer may not always be right - we are straight forward!OK, my penchant for tangents has manifested itself here. Back to the basic information on international certifiers.
The 40 foreign ACAs come from 19 different countries. (Keep in mind these are only certifiers accredited by the USDA.) Here is the breakdown by country, ordered by most to least ACAs:
Germany - 8
Italy - 6
Argentina - 4
Canada - 4
Australia - 2
Spain - 2
Switzerland - 2
Austria - 1
Bolivia - 1
Brazil - 1
Chile - 1
Costa Rica - 1
Greece - 1
Guatemala - 1
Israel - 1
Mexico - 1
Netherlands - 1
Peru - 1
Turkey - 1
ACAs are responsible for (PDF):
1) Conducting certification activities according to the regulations.Accreditation periods last for five years. Near the end of the period, the ACA must apply for renewal. ACAs must submit annual reports to the National Organic Program and correct any deficiencies found in their certification process. ACAs can become accredited to certify four different types of operations: crops, livestock, wild crop harvest, or handling (e.g. processing).
2) Ensuring certified clients comply with all requirements of the NOP regulations.
3) Ensuring compliance with labeling requirements of products of operations they certify.
4) Approving organic systems plans for each operation they certify prior to onsite inspections.
5) Approving all inputs, ingredients, and other materials used by certified operations prior to their use.
6) Conducting annual onsite inspections of certified operations to verify implementation of an approved organic systems plan.
7) Issuing certification decisions and certificates in compliance with NOP regulations.
8) Issuing notices of noncompliance and suspending or revoking the certification of clients that do not comply with the NOP regulations.
9) Reporting adverse actions against certifiers to the NOP, including notices of noncompliance, proposed suspension, proposed revocation, suspension, revocation, or denial of certification to the AMS Compliance office.
10) Obtaining NOP approval for reinstatement of suspended or revoked operations prior to recertification.
11) Submitting annual updates of application information and annual reports of operations certified to the NOP.
12) Maintaining records as required in the NOP regulations.
A Few Good Certifiers
Here are a few examples of popular organic certifiers.
Oregon Tilth is a nonprofit research and education membership organization dedicated to biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. Tilth's history begins in 1974, as an agricultural organization with a unique urban-rural outlook. Primarily an organization of organic farmers, gardeners and consumers, Tilth offers educational events throughout the state of Oregon, and provides organic certification services to organic growers, processors, and handlers internationally.By including "socially equitable," Oregon Tilth addresses not only the growing process but also one of the issues discussed in OrangeClouds's recent VMD diary on organic standards. Here's more:
Oregon Tilth advocates sustainable approaches to agricultural production systems and processing, handling and marketing.Oregon Tilth's organic program (OTCO) also works with retailers and restaurants (who do not need certification to sell organic products as long as they are not also processors, but who must nonetheless follow certain regulations).
Oregon Tilth's purpose is to educate gardeners, farmers, legislators, and the general public about the need to develop and use sustainable growing practices that promote soil health, conserve natural resources, and prevent environmental degradation while producing a clean and healthful food supply for humanity.
We provide speakers for groups and organizations interested in the work of Oregon Tilth or in specific topics such as gardening, alternatives to pesticides, composting, and food safety. Oregon Tilth coordinates conferences, produces events locally, and makes presentations at fairs, educational events, and trade shows throughout the region.
Quality Assurance International
With a name that is on the other side of the "earthiness" spectrum from "Tilth," the San Diego-based QAI is one of the largest certifiers in the world. Their client list includes 976 operations! Here you'll find some of the large agribusinesses and their subsidiaries -- ConAgra, Nestle, Odwalla (Coca Cola) -- though needless to say they also certify independently-owned companies like Amy's Kitchen and Nature's Best. Don't think they're too corporate, though: they still wear flip-flops to staff meetings (or at least one guy does). I guess you can do that in San Diego. (You can even train for Antarctic marathons there.)
Organic certification says nothing about distance the food travels from land to plate, nor how workers on farms are treated, nor size of farm. However, ACAs can choose which operations they certify, and they can establish their own standards for which operations are eligible for their certification. Oregon Tilth, for example, clearly places an emphasis on smaller farms. According to their 2000-04 farms and handling statistics the average US farm certified by OTCO was 211 acres. About 66% of the 412 US farms they certified were located in Oregon, and they had an average acreage of 141. The farm size range with the most OTCO certifications was 10 to 50 acres, which included 121 farms. The third-highest range was under 10 acres (93 farms). Only 46 farms they certified were over 500 acres.
The problem is that large processors who get produce from long supply lines will still be able to find a certifier even if some certifiers emphasize locally sold products and smaller farms. The onus will still be on us, the consumers, to scrutinize labels, if we want to push organic foods up to even higher standards.