Recent cases of massive organic fraud in the Midwest highlight a central tenet of organic manufacturing: Know your supply chain. In February 2020, a man in South Dakota was indicted for selling non-organic grain and seed products marketed as organic to buyers. This comes on the heels of the August 2019 sentencing of four farmers in federal court in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a scheme in which non-organic grain was sold to livestock producers as certified organic grain.
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These types of stories must send shivers down the backs of food manufacturers who strive to build trust with consumers by ensuring that foods they process and sell as organic are truly organic.
The best way to ensure that ingredients are organic, says Gwendolyn Wyard, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs for the Organic Trade Association (OTA), is for food manufacturers to know their supply chain. “There is nothing more important than developing relationships with your suppliers and getting to know them,” she says, adding that undertaking this extra work is critical to ensure that products labeled organic are indeed organic.
Meeting Organic Certification
The basic threshold for ensuring that organic products are organic is to make sure all products are certified as organic. USDA mandates that farmers and handlers follow strict production and labeling requirements to represent their products as organic and receive the USDA Organic Seal. One way to verify the authenticity of organic ingredients is for manufacturers to check organic claims of their suppliers by using USDA’s Organic Integrity Database.
Harriet Behar, an outreach specialist in the Organic and Sustainable Cropping System Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who also sits on the Governing Council and Policy Committee of the Organic Farmers Association, a policy arm of the Rodale Institute, says that the database includes all operations certified by the USDA National Organic Program and allows manufacturers to look up farms and processors that handle specific ingredients or products and where to buy them. Open to the public, the large database includes organizations certified by all of the 80 different certifiers, she adds.
Wyard also refers to the database as a place manufacturers can go to verify that an operation is operating with a valid (in good standing) certificate. She says that all products certified as organic must be accompanied by a valid organic certificate, along with additional supporting documents ensuring that the product received connects to the organic certificate. This includes ensuring that the product documentation meets the organic certification all along the supply chain, including storage and transportation of the product. “One of the beautiful things about the organic system is that, with a narrow exception that may be made for brokers and traders, everyone handling a product in the supply chain has to be certified,” she adds. “There is a chain of custody and traceability that can and should occur all the way through the supply chain, so that is very helpful.”
Ensuring organic throughout the supply chain includes not only making sure that the primary production and manufacturing of food meet organic requirements, but also that contamination prevention controls are put in place as the product moves from field to manufacturer to retailer. All of these factors need to meet the food safety regulations detailed in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Jacob Guth, director of food safety for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), emphasizes that organic farmers need to be aware of various requirements when working to meet FSMA requirements.
Major hurdles for organic farmers in meeting these requirements, he says, include the paperwork and record keeping needed. “If it’s not written down, then it didn’t happen,” he says, adding that even though many operations may have practices in line with food safety and organic requirements, it may still be difficult for them to document the many policies, procedures, and practices needed to demonstrate compliance.
One solution, he says, is to set up record-keeping systems that are easy to fill out and tailored to the size and scope of the operation. “Many times, operations set ambitious record-keeping goals for themselves, only to find out it’s nearly impossible to keep up with those records,” he adds. “Operations that can combine logs or records to check many control points on one record have success ensuring their employees complete those records.”
To help organic growers with FSMA compliance, CCOF offers product safety alliance training, good agricultural practices webinars, and food safety certifications for farms and packinghouses. “While third-party certification is not required by FSMA, it’s often required by buyers and wholesalers, and the process of certification helps prepare an operation for FSMA compliance,” says Guth.
Overall, he recommends that manufacturers have a robust supplier approval program to help ensure that they can verify the organic and food safety compliance of the ingredients they buy. Behar also emphasizes the need for a good tracking system. “If you have a good tracking system in place, doing organic is not going to be difficult,” she says.
Both Guth and Behar add that once operations become certified organic, they have an easier time with food and safety requirements overall because of their established documentation and recording systems.
Extra Work: Due Diligence
Despite a fairly rigorous certification process for meeting organic criteria all along the supply chain, gaps do exist.
One gap is an area of the supply chain that does not need to be certified organic. “Any operation that sells a product that remains enclosed in a container and is not otherwise processed while in the control of the operation, such as brokers and traders, is not required to be certified organic,” says Wyard. Problems of fraud that can result are illustrated in the above-mentioned Midwest organic fraud cases, in which middlemen profited by selling fake organic seed, as well as similar fraud uncovered in 2017 by the Cornucopia Institute of the largest importer of fake organic grain from the Black Sea region.
According to Behar, this loophole may soon be closed, pending approval and enactment of a piece of federal legislation by the USDA National Organic Program that would mandate certification of these types of operations. Called the “Strengthening Enforcement Rule”, the new rule is currently under review by the Office of Inspector General.
Until then, Behar says that manufacturers who work with noncertified brokers can request from them source organic certification and verify that certification by contacting the organic source. When working with certified brokers, she says that manufacturers can “source more domestic products certified under the National Organic Program, rather than working with foreign imported products that are more difficult to track.”
A further gap may be the difficulty of ensuring organic ingredients from farms that are transitioning from conventional to organic farming. Per USDA regulations, farms transitioning to organic cannot sell products certified as organic for three years. During the transition, farmers must reestablish an ecosystem for organic plants that prohibits the use of herbicides and pesticides and are in compliance of all organic methods. This is a labor intensive and costly undertaking, says Wyard.
Although products from these transitioning farms only become certified organic after the three-year transition window, manufacturers may need to perform extra due diligence when partnering with a new organic farmer to ensure all processes are in place. Behar notes that, for most of these newly certified farmers, obtaining information such as an organic certificate from a USDA-approved certifier should be enough, given that the requirements for organic certification are the same between newly certified and long-term certified farms. “If there are concerns, the certifier can be contacted to verify the information on the certificate,” she adds.
Wyard emphasizes that manufacturers need to go beyond just relying on the organic certificate to ensure products are organic. “Everyone has to do their due diligence to take on buyer responsibility and take extra steps and measures to know their supply chain,” she says, adding that the recent cases of fraud have shown that manufacturers can’t turn a blind eye and think everyone is trustworthy in the supply chain.
To help manufacturers avoid fraud or reduce their chances of buying from fraudulent players, the OTA has developed a program to help manufacturers identify areas of vulnerability. Based on a model adopted in food safety systems worldwide, the Organic Fraud Prevention Solutions Program is a voluntary program manufacturers can enroll in to help them put measures in place to prevent fraudulent acts and to ensure a robust supply chain. Billed as a quality assurance program (not a certification or verification program), the program provides a framework and formal processes for manufacturers to use for continuous improvement of internal programs aimed at achieving organic integrity throughout their supply chains.
Nierengarten is an award-winning freelance writer based in Minnesota.