June 22, 1999
Can Customers Trust Organic Label?
Filed at 8:12 p.m. EDT
By The Associated Press
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (AP) -- Consumers will pay more for food
they believe to be free of pesticides and grown in an a way
that protects the environment.
But can they trust it?
The growth of organic food from a fringe movement to a $5
billion nationwide industry is based mostly on trust.
When a label says ``grown and processed in accordance with
the California Organic Foods Act of 1990,'' it does not
necessarily mean the food is truly organic, according to
the organic foods industry, farmers, inspectors and others.
Unless the food also has been independently certified, they
say, it's likely no one has checked to ensure the food
meets minimum state standards.
``The savvy customer knows that if it isn't certified, it
isn't organic,'' said Route 1 Farms owner Jonathan
Steinberg, who grows $1 million of mixed vegetables a year
on 120 rented acres in Santa Cruz County and has been
certified since 1982.
To sell something as organic, growers have to register with
the state and pay an annual fee -- from $25 for under
$10,000 in sales to $2,000 for $5 million or more. Sellers
of processed foods pay just $100 for an entire line of
They also have to keep extensive paperwork showing the food
is free from pesticides and synthetic chemicals.
But until recently, the California Department of Food and
Agriculture hasn't done much more than look into
complaints, which have been rare. And the Department of
Health Services, which inspects processed food, has yet to
set up an organic compliance program.
``When you register with the state there are basically no
on-site inspections. They come out and say 'yup, you're
organic,' end of story,'' said vegetable grower Dick
Peixoto of Watsonville. ``Most customers want that
assurance that you're actually being monitored.''
A federal organic law -- more than a decade in the planning
-- will require certification as early as this fall.
Meanwhile, most major supermarkets have acted on their own.
About 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold by
California's 2500 registered organic growers, packers and
shippers is now certified.
But most national retailers -- including such natural food
chains as Whole Foods Market -- still don't require
certification for processed food.
With the industry growing by 20 percent a year, the state
agriculture department's budget has grown to $350,000 --
enough for 500 inspections this year, and for the first
time, random, unannounced soil and tissue samplings,
program director Ray Green said.
For now, the industry remains small enough for organic
violators to be easily discovered, and by all accounts,
fraud rarely occurs. When it does, Green avoids fines or
criminal charges, unless the fraud seems intentional.
One such incident involved San Diego-based Petrou Foods
Inc., which was caught selling olive oil as organic when
some of the olives were actually harvested from a golf
course. That investigation resulted in a felony conviction
and $10,000 in fines.
``If someone's doing something that's not right, the whole
industry learns about it. And believe me, that can be more
detrimental than anything else,'' said Margaret Wittenberg,
an executive at Whole Foods.
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