In the latest installment of our ongoing What do you do interview series, we talked with the regulatory head of organic standards at industry trade group the Organic Trade Association about her lifetime love of soil, how often organic farmers and processors are actually inspected and why organic meat and dairy face perhaps the biggest challenge ahead.
What's your background, and how did you get into the regulatory side of the food and beverage industry?
I grew up in Montana and pursued a degree in resource conservation. I recognized at that point that soil was the resource I was most interested in protecting. I started farming for a living in the early 1990s. I had intended to become a full-time diversified organic farmer, and make value-added fermented products. However, I discovered I was extremely intrigued by the work of the organic inspector who would inspect the organic farm I was working at every year. I was equally intrigued by the process of fermenting organic food. These discoveries led me to move to Oregon to pursue another degree in food science with an emphasis in fermentation and chemistry. At the same time, I sought out an organization called the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA), and took a training course to become an organic farm and processing inspector.
The shift from organic farming to conducting organic farm and processing inspections exposed me to the regulations at a new level. I had a first-hand opportunity to see how the regulations were applied to certified organic operations throughout the US. That led to my further interest in work that would positively impact organic policy.
What's a day in the life of Gwendolyn like?
Busy, diversified, challenging and fascinating; I talk on the phone most of the day and sleep well at night! I work out of my home office in Oregon, but correspond with other OTA staff located in Washington state, Washington, DC, Vermont and California. We’re a small staff with a large output. A single day is hard to predict, but it always involves membership outreach or support via phone and email, and some kind of writing project. It also will often involve some kind of event or presentation planning. I travel quite a bit as well throughout the United States and internationally meeting with members and government officials, and presenting at and/or attending conferences.
What's the biggest misconception consumers have about organic products?
There is one misconception that comes to mind immediately, a foundational one that has been around for too long and really needs to be dispelled. We continue to hear people say that “organic” is a marketing tool and we can’t really trust whether it’s organic, especially if it is an imported product. All food labeled as “organic” sold in the United States, regardless of origin, must be certified to USDA organic certification standards; it’s the law. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the term “organic” and accredits all certifiers (both domestic and foreign) to the same requirements to uphold the integrity of the organic label. All certifiers must demonstrate that their inspectors are competent, qualified, and have no conflicts of interest in order to maintain accreditation from USDA.
Certified organic farmers have strict rules to follow, and certifiers use residue testing as a means for deterring fraud and improving contamination prevention on organic farms. Over time, USDA’s National Organic Program has increased oversight and enforcement of organic standards, and uses its power to levy civil penalties for fraudulent activity. Last year, 19 farmers or food companies were fined a total of $87,000 for misusing the Organic label. USDA has revoked the accreditations of foreign certifiers who failed to demonstrate competency and quickly announces the discovery of fraudulent certificates. The reality: organic farmers and processors are inspected at least once per year by a competent and highly trained inspector. No other sector of the food industry is subject to the same rigorous annual review, and federal oversight and enforcement.
From where you sit, what has been the most notable change to the organic food products industry in the last 20 years?
It’s no longer a niche market. Consumers are making the correlation between what we eat and our health, and that knowledge is spurring heightened consumer interest in organic products. A niche industry just a decade ago, consumer purchases of organic food first broke through the $30 billion mark in 2012 and now account for more than 4% of the $760 billion annual food sales in the US. I can find organic food of all types just about everywhere I go, and I don’t need to look in specialized health food stores. It’s mainstream, and the diversity of products is amazing.
The most noticeable change this growth is bringing about is that as demand for organic continues to boom and accessibility to organic products increases, the industry is facing some critical supply and demand challenges.
Farmland in the United States is not being converted to organic at the pace needed to meet the growing demand for organic. Supplies of organic feed and organic grain have been tight and costly, which could limit growth especially in the organic dairy and meat sectors. This is a great but troubling challenge to have, and OTA is committed to solving it.
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