Given today's concerns about how and where our food supply is grown, there has been tremendous consumer interest in organic certification. To help consumers better understand what exactly makes a product organic and what steps farmers and manufacturers must take to achieve this coveted status, NSF interviewed Jessica Walden, an auditor for Quality Assurance International, an industry leader in organic certification for almost 20 years.
Q: What attracted you to a career in the organic certification industry and why did you choose Quality Assurance International?
A: When I was a senior in high school and thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought "I want to be an organic farmer." I was very much interested (as I am now) about the environment. I went to University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), directly after high school and started the Environmental Studies degree with an emphasis on Sustainable Agriculture. UCSC actually has an organic farm on campus and offers apprenticeship programs for folks from around the world interested in sustainable farming. About half way through my degree at UCSC, I applied to study in Adelaide, Australia and ended up staying in Australia for 10 years. After finishing a graduate degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Adelaide, I worked for an Australian organic certifier as an inspector, and later as a certification officer and reviewer. In June of 2004, I returned to live in the U.S. and began working as an auditor at QAI.
Q: From your experience, why do you believe certification is important?
A: Organic certification is relatively new in the U.S., beginning in 2002 with the creation of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP). I remember as a young child going to farmers markets with my mother, buying locally produced organic food. Farmers markets are still a viable way to purchase organic produce. However, the organic industry has grown dramatically over the last 10-15 years and the distribution systems are now complex and vast. There are now many certified farmers, processors, distributors, traders, retailers and restaurants around the world.
It is not so common now to purchase your organic food directly from the farm. Instead, those of us who choose to purchase organic food from retailers rely on the certification system to assure us that our food is really organic, since we don't have direct contact with the farm. Organic certification, which is based on written organic standards (or regulations), is so important because it ensures that the sites where organic food is grown/produced and processed are physically visited at least once a year. It also means that a qualified person is auditing all the records related to organic production/handling, thus ensuring that organic product can be traced back to fields of production, inputs used, feed provided (in the case of livestock production), and organic ingredients used. When a product makes an organic claim, one can feel confident that there is consistency and reliability in what the organic claim means.
Products that are sometimes sold as "pesticide free" can be misleading, because that term does not mean that synthetic fertilizers and herbicides or fungicides haven't been used. It doesn't mean that pesticide-free products weren't co-mingled with other products or contaminated with materials that would not be approved under organic certification. There is a whole host of requirements that organic operations must meet in order for them to obtain the organic certification and sell their products as organic.
Q: What are your interactions like with the farmers or facility managers when you visit their farm or facility?
A: For the most part, clients are extremely helpful during the audit. A key attribute of a good inspector is to be able to establish a rapport with clients. Our job is to listen to the client, explain their point of view and perspectives in the inspection report, but also to verify that what the client says is true is indeed the practice carried out at the certified operation. Interactions between inspector and client are generally very good. There needs to be a free exchange of information in order for the inspector to obtain enough information to verify compliance with the organic standard. The client has voluntarily applied for certification and usually wants to prove to the inspector that they are doing the right thing. Inspectors are impartial, have no conflicts of interest with the operation they are inspecting, and are not onsite to make a final certification decision. The inspector is simply collecting the information on behalf of the certifier.
When it happens that the client is not helpful, does not take the organic audit seriously or withholds information, the inspector records this in their inspection report as being a cause for concern. The inspector tries to piece together all of the necessary information to verify compliance, and if information is missing or withheld, the inspector reports this to the certifier as a non-compliance.
Q: Could you take us through a typical audit on an organic farm?
A: A brief synopsis of how an inspection is conducted is as follows:
Q: What are some red flags that you look for when auditing an organic farm?
A: Some red flags include:
Q: Do you have any stories, good or bad, that stick out in your mind?
A: As an inspector of various production and handling operations, I am always learning something new. Those that help operate the organic farm or facilities are the true experts at what they do. Still, as an inspector you often find something that needs to be improved upon in order to bring the operation into compliance.
I have inspected operations that are not only found to be out of compliance but found to be committing fraud, which is another reason why certification is so necessary. Not all operators are doing the right thing, although most are. The inspector is the "eyes, ears and nose" of the organic industry, doing their part to protect the consumer and ensure that operations are being true to their organic plans that their certifier has approved.
Q: What is your advice to consumers who are trying to buy organic produce?
A: The good news is that for product sold, represented or labeled as "Organic," "100 Percent Organic," or "Made with Organic (specified ingredients or food groups)" in the USA has to comply with the Federal Organic Regulation (referred to as the National Organic Program or NOP). This means that the product has to be certified by a NOP-accredited certifier in order for it to make an organic claim.
Go to a reputable retailer to purchase organic products. Make sure to read labels carefully to ensure that you are purchasing organic products. Ask questions of your retailer if signs are misleading or you are not sure as to whether or not the product is organic. Look for the name of the certifier on retail packages. The name of the certifier is evidence that the product has been certified.