California schemin': How a fake organic fertilizer bamboozled farmers and watchdogs alike
Port Organic’s products were popular as well, becoming the largest source of organic fertilizer to farmers in the western half of the U.S., according to the federal indictment, generating $9 million in profits and a Porsche and BMW for Nelson.
These fertilizers tend to be applied in the winter months, when produce grow more slowly, and to heavy-feeding, shallow-rooted crops such as strawberries that produce month after month. The products were attractive because they were potent and could be delivered through drip irrigation lines that run down field rows and water plants. Fish emulsions with organic material can plug up drip lines.
“It was the cheapest stuff around and very popular,” said Zea Sonnabend, a policy specialist and organic inspector at California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the state’s largest certifier.
Although Sonnabend said there had been suspicions about the products, notably from competitors, CCOF could not block a product based on rumor. While OMRI had misgivings about California Liquid Fertilizer, state regulators in California had asked OMRI to back off, pending the results of a state investigation that began in 2005. So with the OMRI seal, organic farmers continued to apply the stuff.
A state investigator in 2006 found rail cars that had delivered ammonium nitrate to the California Liquid Fertilizer plant, reported the Bee. As a result of the investigation, the product was pulled off the market in 2007, with no admission of guilt. The transgression didn’t come to light until late 2008.
Then, in the second instance of alleged fraud, the FBI raided Nelson’s Port Organics in 2009 and found a tank of ammonia under the floor boards in its Bakersfield, Calif., headquarters. The ammonia was used to make synthetic fertilizer sold as organic.
Certifiers made a decision not to punish farmers who had unwittingly applied the products, even though synthetic fertilizers aren’t allowed under organic regulations. There was, after all, no admission of wrongdoing. Plus, everyone from OMRI to the farmers were duped.
If certifiers had taken that step — a move that ultimately would have been decided by the USDA — California organic farms, which account for 22 percent of organic farms in the nation and more than 430,000 acres of organic crops, would have taken a big hit. After all, it takes three years to bring land back to organic once a prohibited substance is applied. The $25 billion industry might have stumbled too, given that organic produce is the largest single segment.
“It would have jeopardized a huge amount of crops at great cost if all growers had to go out of organic for three years,” said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at The Organic Center, an industry-backed think tank.
That risk is now over, since it has been three years since any of this stuff was applied and all fields would technically be free of a “disallowed” substance. Even if Townsend and Nelson are found guilty, farmers and the industry won’t suffer.
The breadth of organic farming in California may have made it especially vulnerable to fraud, since it presents a welcome market — for anyone. But the industry’s maturity might also be a counterweight to this happening again, because it has prompted more vigilance.
A California state law overseeing organic fertilizer went into effect in 2011, which requires inspection and certification of fertilizer sold in the state. The program may become a kind of pilot for the National Organic Program, the USDA’s McEvoy said.
In 2009, the NOP also began requiring that all liquid fertilizers with greater than 3 percent nitrogen content must be reviewed by OMRI or an accredited certifier.
Earthbound didn’t wait for the new state law to take effect. “By the time the regulators get involved it’s often too late,” said Will Daniels, Earthbound’s vice president of quality, food safety, and organic integrity.
Once the scandal broke, the company began testing fertilizers. It now posts the information on an internal website so contract growers can see what soil amendments are approved.
Testing is a big part of the company’s quality assurance regime. Aside from fertilizer, it also tests organic compost for pathogens. Salad mix and other crops delivered to its processing plants are tested for pesticides and pathogens. Then once they’re washed and bagged, they’re sampled again — a particularly rigorous program the rest of the industry has yet to emulate.
But Earthbound has a reason for being so thorough. Its parent company, Natural Selection Foods, processed the spinach greens for Dole that were contaminated with E. coli and ended up sickening 205 people and killing two in 2006, only a year before the fertilizer case came to light.
While fraudulent fertilizer may not be in the same league as tainted spinach, the two cases have a lot in common. In both, a central source made its way into the middle of a robust system, tainting everything in its path. But they also have a notable difference: E. coli arose from the environment; while for the fake organic fertilizers, the root cause was fraud.
One way to prevent these type of incidents would be to beef up oversight — something that the Food Safety Modernization Act that passed Congress late last year would attempt to do for, say, salad mix. California’s state law will also mean greater oversight and inspections of fertilizer makers, adding another layer of assurance for farmers and creating a potential model for the National Organic Program.
But perhaps the biggest lesson from the case is that every link in the chain of the organic industry, from farmer to product testers to certifiers, should have been more suspicious all along. If the fertilizers were so good, so cheap, and so much more potent than the norm, maybe they were simply too good to be true.
In other words, everyone was duped, but perhaps too easily. Organic consumers can only hope that the renewed sense of vigilance will be present when the next case of fraud — with fertilizers, pesticides, or false labeling — inevitably arises.