Commentary: Making 'organic" label have meaning

This editorial appeared in The Sacramento Bee.

Californians are passionate about the term "organic," which is why many of them pay a premium price for foods grown with no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

Consumers of organic agriculture support a growing $24 billion national industry that has a major presence here in California. But they do so only because they assume that government and growers are watching out for what they buy.

That faith has been badly shaken by revelations reported by The Bee's Jim Downing in a Dec. 28 story. Through open records requests, Downing learned that the state Department of Food and Agriculture had caught a California manufacturer spiking its organic fertilizer with chemicals but didn't act against the company for more than two years.

According to Downing's reporting, agriculture department inspectors learned from a whistleblower in June 2004 that California Liquid Fertilizer, based in Salinas, was adding ammonium sulfate to a fertilizer that was supposed to be made from fish and chicken waste.

At the time, the company was a fast-growing manufacturer of organic fertilizer. Within two years, it would control a third of the state's market, supplying big organic producers such as Earthbound and Tanimura & Antle.

Despite the stakes involved, it took a year for a state inspector to sample and test the company's leading product. Further tests found more ammonium sulfate in the company's fertilizer.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.