Prove It or Lose It
Inspector makes sure food labeled “organic” really is
Annie Berical grabs a bottle of beer at Kind Cuisine Café in Boise. She eyes the label and looks at the fine print, scanning for information that hints at what’s behind the beer’s hoppy bite. Berical doesn’t look at the label with the thirst of a beer buff. She’s an Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) International certification inspector, a role which often has her peeking into silos, tracing paper trails and asking questions about storage rooms and buffer zones.
Part detective, part regulator, Berical inspects organic food along a chain-of-custody that starts at a farm and ends on a grocery store shelf.
“The way foods are handled makes all the difference,” she said, noting that organic certification doesn’t just mean that a food has been grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers; it attests to the clean handling, storage and shipment of the food that maintains its organic integrity once it leaves the field or pasture.
Organic food stands for more than just a clean food source for Berical. Certified organic food labeling explains a complex story about the journey of a seed—with an informed eye, we can see where that seed has stopped and landed on its journey to become the food that nourishes us.
Every person who touches a certified product must undergo intense scrutiny to ensure that the pathway from farm to table hasn’t been tainted in some way—that what started as a clean organic product remains that way throughout; it’s a difficult task to prove.
Inspectors put everything under the microscope: seed origins, paperwork, buffer zones. If producers and handlers fail inspection, they put their certification at risk.
“Usually that process works pretty well because they’re in it for the right reasons. If there’s something fishy going on, they’ll have a distinct lack of records. And we can use that lack of records to shut them down,” Berical said.
The process depends a lot on honesty. A producer may undergo inspection only once a year, but those detailed reviews can catch problems. Minor violations often come with a warning and if producers or handlers don’t fix the problem, they could face a suspension of certification. If they commit major, willful violations—such as planting GMO seeds or using prohibited chemicals—they could lose their certification for up to five years. And anyone who knowingly labels a product as organic without certification could face fines of up to $11,000 per violation.
The USDA upped the ante in recent years, adding scores of inspectors to its payroll and instituting higher organic standards in 2001, which continue to evolve into ever more stringent inspection criteria. It means that Berical deals with politics as much as she deals with food.
“As a kid, I never thought I’d be doing something like this,” Berical said. “Of course, this job didn’t exist [then]. I’m glad it does.”
The tracking and inspection of the journey from farm to table is what the USDA and inspectors refer to as the chain of custody. Everyone along that chain must prove—among many things—that they didn’t use chemical detergents to clean a storage bin or fumigate a truck to keep pests under control. If they pass inspection, they earn a certificate that must be handed off to the next handler. This traceable certification means there’s enough paperwork to follow your organic tomato from the store to the field and points in between. It’s not only an expensive process—North End Organic Nursery pays around $1,000 annually for its inspection—it also translates into documentation that makes tracing the genealogy of a vegetable easier than some family roots.
“People who throw chemicals on [produce] don’t have to show a thing. They don’t even have to show what kind of chemicals they use,” said North End Organic Nursery Manager Elisa Clark.
But even Clark’s packages undergo scrutiny. And Berical takes that kind of scrutiny from her job to the café. At Kind Cuisine Café, Berical spies a USDA organic label on the bottom corner of that beer bottle. “That means nothing,” she said. “Anyone can get the label online.” Berical searched the label for more detailed information that could tell her about the storage rooms, silos, shipping containers and brewing tanks that once held the brew.
Bingo. She found a website on the backside of the label. That site takes Berical to a link that tells her about the beer’s certification and attests that every tank, bin, truck or warehouse the beer came in contact with stayed squeaky clean and has the paperwork to prove it. It’s a paper trail not everyone is willing to produce, Berical said. “I had a producer say, ‘I’m not a paperwork farmer. I’m a potato farmer.’” She added, “It’s a lot of math and a lot of paperwork, so a lot of producers dropped out.” Those who remain certified believe the costs and effort are worth it to prove to their customers the products they sell are free of chemicals and pesticides or “truly organic.”