In late December an important story broke here in California that calls into question the integrity of foods labeled “certified organic”. It’s tragic that the greed of a few operators can jeopardize the integrity of the entire system. Unfortunately, as we have seen with the melamine scandals, when there are piles of money to be made, greed can trump ethics. For some, the temptation to cheat is just too strong.
Back in 2004, a former employee of California Liquid Fertilizer revealed that instead of making a certified organic liquid fertilizer from chicken feathers and fish, the company was spiking their fertilizer with much cheaper ammonium sulfate, a chemical not allowed in organic production. Before you get scared, this is not a food safety problem. It’s simply cheating. Organic farming principals disallow the use of chemicals.
The Sacramento Bee broke the story in late December after the paper obtained documents from the California Department of Food and Agriculture through a Public Records Act request. It’s troubling that the California Department of Food and Agriculture officials were notified of the problem in June 2004 by the whistle blower, but didn’t take any action to remove the product from the market until January 2007.
The farms that unknowingly used the fertilizer have not been charged. They are some of the largest organic producers in California, supplying large, mainstream, grocery retailers nationwide. One of these farms, Earthbound, is doing the responsible thing by testing its produce for chemical residue.
The lax enforcement of the California Department of Food and Agriculture notwithstanding, this issue points to another problem in the organics industry: price pressure. As organics started to go mainstream and become big business, big players wanted to win the game. Large food retailers like Walmart and Target and large grocery chains like Albertson’s compete mainly on price and work with razor thin margins. Larger farms with economies of scale are better able than smaller, more diverse farms to supply the large grocers. Prices go down, making organics affordable for more people, which is a good thing. The farms are under pressure to produce more, which requires more inputs to make the plants grow faster. Yet the farm managers need to keep costs under control if they want to sell to the big guys. I think it’s an all-too-human reaction on the part of the pressured farm managers not to ask too many questions about the really cheap fertilizer they are buying.
California Liquid Fertilizer held as much as a third of the state market in 2006 before state regulators quietly pulled the company’s leading product. And the problem isn’t over. It’s widening. In November 2007, another company’s liquid fertilizer was pulled. And last week, Federal agents raided Port Organic Products Ltd. of Bakersfield. Though no charges have been filed in that case, county records from 2005 show Port Organic has stocked thousands of gallons of aqua ammonia, a common source of synthetic nitrogen.
Organic food has long been criticized as being elitist. The increased availability of affordable organic foods in mainstream grocery stores has gone a long way toward dispelling this myth. Now I worry that instead of a two-tiered food system where some people can afford organic food and some can’t, we’ll have a two-tiered organic system. People who cannot afford to shop at their local farmers’ market and take the time to research the farms and ask questions about the farmer’s practices will end up with fake organic food – that they are paying more money for than they would conventional.
And that’s really sad for everyone – consumers, and the farmers and organic producers who have worked hard all their lives build an industry based on trust and transparency and who now find their integrity called into question. Shame on companies like California Liquid Fertilizers and Port Organics, whose short-sighted profit motives may well damage the long term livelihood of all.
Sources: 1, 2
Image: Kevin Dooley