New complaint places organic fraud in spotlight again

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags National organic program Organic certification Organic food

A Californian mushroom firm could face fraud investigations
following accusations that it has violated organic standards and
country of origin labeling laws.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP), a public interest group, last week called on the National Organic Program (NOP) to investigate Golden Gourmet Mushrooms (GGM), claiming that the company has been selling conventional mushrooms as organic.

US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) NOP, which sets standards for organic foods, generally refers complaints to the relevant State Organic Program, or to a certifying agent.

However, GAP has indicated that "it is imperative that this investigation be conducted by NOP independently" of the certifying agent - Quality Assurance International (QAI) - which it claimed was "uncooperative" in releasing public information about its certified operations.

The whistleblower further requests NOP to conduct a review of the performance of the private organic certifier, which it claims may have exercised "poor judgment" in this case.

GAP's complaint accuses GGM, which is based in San Diego County, California, of violating organic standards by misrepresenting conventional product as organic, manipulating organic certification documents, and making false claims to its customers about the nature and origin of its mushrooms.

"Every violation of the standards reduces public confidence in the organic label.

It is critical that the National Organic Program thoroughly investigate complaints and weed out any bad actors now while the program is still young," said Jacqueline Ostfeld, GAP food and drug safety officer.

The group claims that GGM, which sells both fresh mushrooms and dried mushroom powder, has been sourcing all of its fresh mushrooms from Japan-based Hokuto for the past two years, despite claiming that the mushrooms it sells are cultivated in California.

GAP also stated: "In October 2006, GGM was only certified by QAI to produce and process 100 percent organic mushroom mycelia (roots) for its mushroom powder products.

Following certification, GGM management not only failed to establish procedures to prevent the commingling of conventional mushrooms from Japan with its own 100 percent certified organic mycelia, it instructed employees to continue blending the powders as they had always done in the past."

"According to certification documents maintained on QAI's website, Hokuto's "First Certified Date" did not occur until January 22, 2007.

On that date, Hokuto was certified organic to 'handle' mushrooms.

GAP began seeking clarification on GGM and Hokuto's organic certification status in early May 2007.

The USDA was unable to fulfill GAP's FOIA request regarding certification documents because of its policy that these materials be maintained and released by the certifying agency.

QAI has ignored requests from GAP to obtain this 'public information.'"

Golden Gourmet Mushrooms was unavailable for immediate comment prior to publication.

The NOP was developed to facilitate domestic and international marketing of agricultural products that are organically produced and to assure consumers that such products meet consistent, uniform standards.

The group investigates cases of fraud by working with its attorneys to gather evidence in order to develop relevant civil penalties.

Violations include companies knowingly selling or labeling a non-organic product as organic, or making false statements to NOP, a certifying agent, or a State Organic Program official.

If NOP finds that organic violations have occurred, it will generally present the company in question with a notice of proposed revocation of production and handling certifications under NOP, which will often mean that the operation will be ineligible to receive certification for a number of years following the date of revocation.

Companies presented with such a notice in general have the right to file an appeal, which could lead to a consent agreement with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which governs NOP.

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