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Organic Fertilizer Scandal Reveals Certification Gaps

If sustainability is the soul of organic agriculture, then organic fertilizer is the heart. Unlike synthetic chemicals, it helps the soil reclaim essential nutrients. Using organic inputs to create organic food is one of the hallowed tenets upon which the entire movement is based.

The pivotal role of organic fertilizers in food production makes this month's indictment of one of the West Coast's largest suppliers of organic liquid fertilizer disturbing. What's more, this is actually the second time in five months that a federal grand jury in California has charged an organic fertilizer supplier.

In the most recent case, the owner of Port Organic Products faces 28 counts of mail fraud in connection with an alleged scheme that swapped out organic fertilizer made of fishmeal and bird guano with cheaper synthetics. Federal authorities allege that Kenneth Noel Nelson Jr. earned $9 million in profits from his illegal efforts.

In October of last year, similar charges were leveled against the owner of California Liquid Fertilizer, which in its heyday supplied a full one-third of the state's organic farms, including some leading, brand-name salad processors. This indictment charges Peter Townsley with 11 counts related to switching organic ingredients with synthetics from 2000 right up though the end of 2006.

The allegations are shocking in part because of organic fertilizer's placement in the supply chain. It's used at the very beginning of the production process, so if the fertilizer is compromised, then so is everything that grows from it. The farm and the food are technically in violation of national organic standards.

Officials point out that in both cases the agencies responsible for certifying the companies were not part of the scheme, and were fooled like everyone else. However, such declarations leave unanswered a compelling question: How did these adulterated products remain certified for so long? Nelson's indictment spans the years 2003-2009, while Townsley's covers 2000-2006.

While products might be carefully tested when they're first submitted for certification, it appears that any safeguards in place for annual reviews or recertification are lacking or not vigorously exercised. Six years passed before the fraud was uncovered and the operations shut down.

Just as worrisome was the amount of time that elapsed before Townsley's case became public knowledge. A special request in 2008 by the Sacramento Bee for public records revealed that, despite an inside whistleblower and increasingly damming evidence, it took California agriculture officials more than two years to complete their probe. Additionally, the findings were kept confidential for more than a year.

Organic agriculture is important to every state, but especially California, which supplies roughly 60% of the organic produce consumed in the United States.

The two cases expose serious deficiencies in the administration of the National Organic Program. Inquiries into alleged violations need to be given a higher priority, and recertification procedures are in dire need of an update. Making the results of all investigations public in a timely manner would also help. This industry thrives on transparency.