SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s been barely a year since Luis Miranda began selling organic produce at farmers markets near his home in California’s Central Valley, but he’s already seen every trick in the book.
Scanning the stands recently at a market in downtown Sacramento, Miranda pointed out a half-dozen examples of misleading signs and labels. One of the most common tricks is posting a banner with the California Certified Farmers’ Markets seal – which closely resembles the marks bestowed by state-recognized organic certifiers, but means only that the produce was grown by the farmer selling it.
“You see banners that say ‘certified’ or ‘pesticide-free,’ and it’s either not true or it doesn’t mean what customers think it means,” Miranda said. “I see farmers do it all the time, and it hurts real organic farmers like me.”
Higher prices for organic produce give farmers an incentive to look for ways around the costly and time-consuming organic certification process. The result can be shoppers who don’t get what they pay for and true organic producers who are undersold by conventional farmers with lower production costs.
To cut down on such fraud, California is launching a new effort to boost enforcement of rules governing the fast-growing, $1.1 billion organic industry that many say has thus far been a poorly regulated free-for-all.
“Enforcement is critical, because right now no one’s watching the store,” said Al Montna, president of the state Board of Food and Agriculture. “Organic produce is difficult to raise, it’s expensive, and the guy that’s short-circuiting the process is taking away value on the market.”
In fact, the 40-year-old Miranda was the only vendor at the market that day whose squash, bell peppers and tomatoes bore the seal of an accredited organic certifier. To keep that seal, he pays about $250 in annual fees to the certifier and the State Organic Program, which oversees at least 2,800 farms and ranches in the largest organic farming community in the country.
“They’re supposed to use the fees to make improvements, but every market where I go, the state has never shown up,” said Miranda, who lives about 40 miles south of the state capital in Lodi and sells at six farmers markets each week. “I feel like I’m just donating some money to the state, and I don’t know what they do with it.”
The State Organic Program proposed new rules in June aimed at creating more consistent oversight. They would, for the first time, outline specific procedures for investigating complaints and collecting samples to check for use of unauthorized pesticides and fertilizers. They also would allow the state to establish a spot inspection program to ensure California-made products carrying the organic label are authentic.
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In addition, later this month, state agriculture officials will begin training county officials to weed out organic impostors.
Rick Jensen, chief of inspection and compliance for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said officials would focus on areas where they know there are problems.
That will include farmers’ markets, where many organic sellers are allowed to skip certification because their gross sales bring in less than $5,000 per year. The small farms are expected to obey the same rules as larger, certified ones, but officials acknowledge they’ve had difficulty enforcing that.
The State Organic Program will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules in August and hopes to see them take effect in October, Jensen said.
California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the state’s largest organic certification agencies, has been urging the state to crack down on violations for years, executive director Peggy Miars said.
“Only with reliable enforcement can we assure customers of the high integrity of the organic foods they buy and eat,” she said.
California is home to 20 percent of the country’s organic operations and is the only state with its own oversight program. Other states rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program to make sure organic products meet uniform standards and are appropriately labeled.
In March, an internal audit of the National Organic Program highlighted the difficulty of regulating an industry that has grown between 14 percent and 21 percent annually over the past decade. The audit found numerous lapses in enforcement on the national level and in California’s program.
Jensen, the state inspection chief, said the state had already begun working to meet the audit’s recommendations before it was published. He received a letter from the USDA in May confirming that California was in full compliance with national standards.
Not everyone thinks more state involvement will improve California’s organic industry.
Dan Best, the coordinator of Certified Farmers’ Markets of Sacramento, said he believes his 10 locations are relatively free of deceptive practices by non-organic farmers. If anything, he said, the state’s onerous and expensive certification process has shut out farmers whose products truly are organic.
“I’ve got several growers who everyone knows to be organic, but they don’t use the label because they can’t meet all the regulation requirements,” Best said. “We want to be sure people aren’t misrepresenting their produce, we want to be safe, but the current regulations are a huge cost to growers.”