Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Food safety know-how can help save organic acreage

Getting tangled up in two different sets of regulations can be a headache — or even worse, a reason to choose one part of your business over another.

That can be the case if you’re an organic farmer, especially a small- or mid-sized one already following food safety regulations. You can’t just turn the record-keeping required by both programs over to someone else, as can happen on large farms flush with cash. 

To begin with, you know you have to produce food free from foodborne pathogens that can make people sick. That’s a given. Yet, to be able to sell your food as organic, you have to follow specific rules and farming practices, some of which require keeping soil in good condition without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and steering clear of genetically modified seeds.

The bottom line is that consumers want to know the food has been raised in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or potentially poison them. Or get them sick. In other words, you have to deal with two sets of regulations —and two sets of regulators. It’s not an easy task to juggle by anyone’s reckoning. Not to mention the time and cost of doing this.

With that in mind, the USDA recently awarded a $3.5 million USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant to help reduce food safety barriers for organic specialty crop growers.

Specialty crops are fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, and dried fruits grown to be used by people for food or medicinal purposes.

In contrast, commodity crops are not grown for direct consumption but for sale to a commodity market. The most common commodity crops in the United States are corn, soybeans, and wheat. They are often used for animal feed or can sometimes end up in human food by being processed as fillers and sweeteners. For the most part, these are the crops that get federal subsidies.

Why the grant?’
Through discussions with The Organic Center (, the Organic Trade Association (, and people who have a vested interest in the organic industry, it became apparent that food-safety management was particularly challenging for organic farmers for various administrative and operational reasons, said Amber Sciligo, The Organic Center’s director of science programs.

With that reality before them, The Organic Center put together a team of scientists and food safety experts to submit a grant proposal that would allow for a national needs assessment to be conducted. From there, based on that assessment, it would allow for developing a research program to address the most significant challenges identified in the needs assessment.

The planning grant was awarded, and Sciligo and her co-lead, Dr. Patrick Baur, assistant professor in sustainable agriculture and food systems at the University of Rhode Island, conducted the national needs assessment.

In that assessment, they found that most organic growers surveyed who currently or had previously held pre-harvest food safety certifications reported administrative or operational barriers in complying with the National Organic Program (NOP) and food safety standards.

Some organic growers pointed to compliance costs, water testing for microbial pathogen contamination, effects of livestock proximity, record keeping, and the food safety risk of compost and other organic soil amendments as the most significant barriers to meeting NOP and food safety requirements.

While compost — the result of the natural breakdown of leaves, manures, and other organic materials— is a rich source of nutrients, if not managed right, it can be a potential source of food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella and E. Coli as well as other bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Managing compost involves making sure the compost pile is hot enough to kill the pathogens and also turning the compost pile at suitable intervals so all the components reach a high enough temperature to kill the pathogens. Not surprisingly, this can be a time-consuming and complicated process that calls for due diligence to ensure the pathogens and other harmful components are killed before the nutrient-rich compost is applied to the soil where crops will be grown.

Some of the grant money will be used to develop a “tool” farmers can use for compost in a way that ensures it can be used to enrich the soil where crops are grown safely.

The major concern
Sciligo clarified that this new grant did not arise from concerns about food safety in organic produce production.

“The major concern here is not that organic farmers won’t continue to grow food safely but rather that they won’t continue to grow certified organic food,” she said.

“To ensure that we can keep growing the amount of organic acreage in the US, we are trying to alleviate barriers that farmers face in complying with food safety and organic regulations — we don’t want them to have to choose.”

She said in the case of limited resources such as money, time, and knowledge. “we’ve heard farmers say that they will choose to get certified for their food safety management over organic certification. But we want organic farmers to be able to remain certified while also satisfying food safety requirements.” 

“We have robust policies designed to deliver safe, organic food through the National Organic Program and the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Baur said. “But on the ground, these policy worlds don’t always speak the same language or work together. The burden falls on organic farmers to deal with all the resulting tensions.”

He said they’re developing new communication and training tools aimed at the fruit and vegetable sector “to build a shared language between organic agriculture and the food safety community and help them work better together.”

With that in mind, Baur said that holding regional workshops that will allow farmers and regulators from both programs to share their concerns and questions will do a lot to get the players on the same page.

The workshops are slated for 2026 and 2027. They will be in the four USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) regions, with highly active organic regions like the West having more than one workshop.

The Organic Center will also host two webinars for organic certifiers and food safety auditors in 2026 and 2027 to share the project’s results, explain how to use the decision-making tool for organic soil amendments, and preview a series of online training modules.

“We expect that challenges to comply with food safety regulations and NOP regulations simultaneously will likely vary by crop and region as food safety risks are impacted by things like climate and typical operation scale and crop composition,” Sciligo said. 

“It will be good for food-safety regulators to know more about the parts of the National Organics Program that cause tension and for the organic program certifiers to know more about the food-safety requirements, said Baur. “It’s all about filling the gaps. We must recognize when the two may be speaking past one another.”

This is important, he said, because while organic demand is increasing, organic acreage is not. 

According to an article in the Associated Press, over the past several decades, demand for organics has increased so fast that it has begun outstripping the supply produced in the United States. With that came the realization that even though consumers are willing to pay higher prices for organic food, the challenge is convincing enough farmers to get past their apprehensions about going organic, especially considering the extra revenue it can bring in.

Also to keep in mind is the growth of organic produce imported from other countries into the United States.

In 2021, domestic production of organic products — fruits, vegetables and herbs — added up to 2,035 million pounds, according to ProducePay. But the amount coming into the U.S. from other countries came to 1,684 million pounds.

In the U.S., the main organic produce was apples (31.1 percent), strawberries (9.5 percent), oranges (6.9 percent), romaine lettuce (6.7 percent), and potatoes (6.2 percent. In the case of trade, the most imported organic produce were bananas (53.1 percent), avocados( 7.7 percent), mangoes (5.8 percent), blueberries (5 percent), and squash (4.3 percent). The most exported were apples (80 percent), pears (14.4 percent), cherries (4.0 percent), dried onions (1.5 percent) and potatoes (0.2 percent).

The consumer and ag’s voice
“I think it’s a good thing,” said Tom Kennedy, a consumer and an organic gardener from Bellingham, WA. “I’d like to see all food organic. We need more organic acreage.”

He also pointed to earlier times when it was common for farmers to use many chemicals.

“No one thought twice about it then,” he said. “But those chemicals can get people sick and into the soil and the air.

As for him, he said he eats organically whenever he can “because it’s healthier.”

“The more we can explain the regulations, the better,” said Linda Neunzig, a livestock farmer and also the agriculture coordinator for Snohomish County. “ It will help alleviate any misunderstandings. Having a common understanding is always a good thing.”

But she acknowledged that it can be a “spiderweb” to figure it all out.

Currently, she raises only livestock, but in the past, she also grew to produce that she raised organically and sold directly to customers.

“I never got certified organic,” she said. “There was too much cost and record keeping involved.”

When referring to the grant, Baur said that at the end of the day, the goal is to serve the consumers’ best interests. 

“We’re confident this will have real value,” he said.

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