Delivering the week’s top organic food news
5.2.2018
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At the National Organic Standards Board Meeting in Arizona, Addressing Fraud Was a Clear Priority


Last week’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Tucson was a first for me.

I actually left with a sense of optimism and thought that it was the most productive NOSB meeting I have ever attended.

While it was by no means a perfect meeting and we still face plenty of issues that have not been resolved, there was complete unanimity — among the private industry, the NOSB, and representatives from the USDA — that fraud in organic is a very serious issue and must be dealt with immediately.

Everyone was on the same page about this, a rare occurrence, which was why the meeting felt so constructive. We all want the same outcome.

Validating the importance of this topic, nearly an entire day was dedicated to fraud, and experts flew in from all over the world to give their take on the matter, to discuss the weak points in the system, and to provide recommendations.

Here are a few key highlights from the meeting, points to consider, and observations:

* Even with the Washington Post’s massive 2017 investigation of fraudulent organic grains from abroad, the USDA was not quick to jump on this issue.

However, according to John Bobbe, Executive Director of OFARM (Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing), whose Minnesota-based organization represents organic grain and livestock producers in 19 states, things have come a long way in the past year.

“In April 2017, one of our OFARM grain marketers called in to schedule public comments with the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). When asked what he wanted to discuss, he said import fraud. He was told there was no problem and that all of the paperwork was in order. At the fall 2017 NOSB meeting, about two hours was devoted to a panel discussion with Customs and Border Patrol, APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – USDA) and AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service – USDA) about systems that might be used to combat import fraud,” John Bobbe said.

As mentioned above, the meeting in Arizona dedicated nearly a full day to fraud. Needless to say, there has been a dramatic change within the last 12 months.

* Given what we have witnessed so far under this current administration, such as abandoning the Organic Animal Welfare Standards and the USDA’s refusal to listen to the NOSB recommendation to drop carrageenan as an approved ingredient, organic does not exactly receive favored treatment.

Yet, much of what is at stake here has little to do with organic. It has to do with foreign countries selling fraudulent goods to American citizens, something that will not be tolerated by the U.S. government. Thankfully.

* There are lapses in the supply chain where not all of the participants are certified organic, including brokers, handlers and warehouses. The NOSB needs to examine the entire supply chain and determine which participants must be certified organic and which ones do not need to be certified organic, such as customs brokers and some transportation firms.

This issue becomes particularly problematic with fruits and vegetables, and open boxes are being handled by uncertified operators, where co-mingling can occur.

* Last year, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) established a Global Organic Supply Chain Integrity Task Force and is now developing a Best Practices Guide for the industry.

A 3-month pilot project will be launched on June 1st, which will allow collaborating companies (from all parts of the supply chain and different commodity types) to test out this guide. The goal is to provide a guide for what buyers can be doing to ensure they are purchasing legitimate organic products and to assess vulnerabilities along the supply chain.

Gwendolyn Wyard, OTA’s vice president of regulatory and technical affairs, hopes to have the Best Practices Guide finalized by this fall and to present it at the October NOSB meeting in Minnesota. She also said the goal would be to have industry-wide adoption of these best practices.

* Blockchain should definitely be a part of the solution, which would not only aid with traceability but could preclude certificates from being forged or changed — a major problem area. However, I did not get the sense that the NOSB was overly familiar with this technology.

* The other part of the discussion is not only fraud from abroad and lapses along the supply chain, but a lack of enforcement of existing rules within our own borders, such as the supposed violations at Aurora Dairy, which were completely swept under the rug by the USDA, and hydroponics continuing to be allowed in organic, which is a violation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

Just like with every other industry in our country, organic has issues with fraud. So, we are not unique.

The reality is that the organic sector has grown incredibly fast, and the regulatory body has been unable to keep pace. As such, we are paying the price and trying to play catch up.

Additionally, up until now, compliance has been heavily reliant on certificates and a process-based system, something easy to manipulate for criminals.

A bill has been introduced to Congress that provides for a modernization of organic import documentation, new technology advancements, and stricter enforcement of organic products entering the United States. According to the OTA’s Gwendolyn Wyard, if and when this bi-partisan Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act gets passed, the USDA’s National Organic Program will have one year to revise the regulations.

Given the incredible complexity of this matter, and as was demonstrated in Tucson, the NOSB is addressing this matter with real concern and urgency. While the problem is far from being solved, this, in itself, was a very encouraging sign.

We will continue to keep Organic Insider readers informed about this most important issue.

******

Have a great day!

Max Goldberg, Founder

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This Week's Quick Hits

Quick Hits

* The USDA finally announced two new members to the 15-person National Organic Standards Board — but not in time for the meeting in Tucson. The new members are Dr. James Greenwood and Eric Schwartz.

* Until this fall’s meeting in Minnesota, when we get a chance to hear them talk and see how they vote on key issues, it is hard to assess if they will be helpful.

* However, this is what we do know.

* Dr. James Greenwood served as a science advisor for the FDA and has consulted for numerous biotechnology companies. Eric Schwartz, a former president of Dole Fresh Foods, has many years of experience marketing conventional and organic produce.


* The Organic Farming Research Foundation is hosting a webinar series on soil health and organic farming. The monthly series takes place over the next 12 months, and the first webinar is on May 9th.


* Swedish chef Helene Henderson, the founder of the Malibu Farm Pier Café and Restaurant in Malibu, CA, will be bringing her organic Malibu Farm to NYC’s Pier 17 at South Street Seaport. It is expected to open in 2019.


* Annie’s has just released an excellent short film that documents its regenerative organic farming efforts and tells the story of its two Montana partners, grain farmers Casey Bailey and Nate Powell-Palm.


* Here is a summary of the findings after Year 1 of the Rodale Institute’s Industrial Hemp Research Project.


* An organic, ancestral Haitian rum is coming to America called clairin.


* Debuting tomorrow in Boston is Spyce, a Daniel Boulud-backed restaurant which will have robots cooking the food.


* Apparently, comedian Steve Harvey has plans to launch an organic food empire.


* During my travels last week to Arizona, two of my favorite organic venues in Phoenix were Pomegranate Cafe (vegetable burrito) and Kaleidoscope Juice (avocado toast). I highly recommend both places!


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