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‘Organic’ Fertilizer Maker Pleads Guilty to Fraud

A man who misrepresented chemical fertilizer as organic has pleaded guilty in federal court, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California.

Peter Townsley, owner of California Liquid Fertilizer in the Salinas Valley, admitted to defrauding his organic farmer customers by saying his fertilizer, Biolizer XN, was approved for use in organic agriculture when it actually contained chemicals prohibited in organic crop production.

As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office and Inspection General’s effort to crack down on fraud and corruption in the more than $24 billion organic industry, the case was prosecuted by the Special Prosecutions and National Security Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco, which acknowledged the “significant effort” to investigate the matter

by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

From April 2000 to December 2006, the U.S. Attorney’s office said in a news release, Townsley’s company took in more than $6.5 million in gross sales of Biolizer XN.

According to the plea agreement, Townsley successfully applied for Organic Material Review Institute (OMRI) approval of Biolizer XN in 1998, claiming the fertilzer was made of fish, fish by-products, feathermeal and water.  By April 2000, however, he reformulated the ingredients  to include a product containing ammonium chloride, which is not allowed in organic farming, and did not disclose this change.

By June 2001, he changed the product again to include ammonium sulfate, another prohibited ingredient, but continued to claim the fertilizer was OMRI-approved.

Townsley “admitted that he knew these representations to organic farmers were false when he made them and that by deceiving his customers, he was able to ensure continued sales of Biolizer XN to organic farmers,” the U.S. attorney said.

Townsley, 50, was originally indicted by a federal grand jury on June 1, 2010. In pleading guilty to two counts of mail fraud, based on his mailing renewal certifications to OMRI in 2005 and 2006, he faces up to 20 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, three years of supervised release, and a $100 special assessment.

Sentencing is scheduled for June 13, 2012.

© Food Safety News
  • Andrea R.

    I always suspected the whole “organic” fad was a scam. Now it is being exposed. Aren’t these mouthy organic enthusiasts the same ones always smearing honest ordinary farmers with charges of greed and corruption? When it comes to greed and corruption, these organic fat cats know firsthand what they are talking about! They police themselves, so what can you expect? I’m glad I never wasted much of our family’s grocery money on organic ripoffs.

  • Steve

    Ahem… fraud is fraud, no matter where you find it. The scam here wasn’t organic — but an unscrupulous, greedy supplier who fraudulently substituted some certifiable organic fertilizer ingredients with cheap chemical ag substitutes — and, for a while, made a pile of money doing it…
    As to the claim that organic farmers, etc police themselves — that’s completely ridiculous. Spend a little time looking over USDA’s National Organic Program and their certification rules and regulations…
    What you can expect with organic is a food production and handling verification program that remains the gold standard in the marketplace.

  • James

    The guy got caught because he added real fertilizer ingredients that actually worked to grow bigger crops. People noticed. If he had marketed it as “New and improved. Now enhanced with recycled unicorn urine” organic true believers would have accepted it and haled him as a hero, a genius. Kathleen Merrigan would have pinned a presidential award to the breast of his hemp blouse. Prince Charles would be tugging at his Mum’s skirts, teasing to have her knight the organic fertilizer maker. Ah, “Sir Townsley” – that has a very, very nice ring to it. Oh well, live and learn.

  • Steve

    Ahem again–
    Besides the fact that synthetic chemical fertilizers are prohibited in organic agriculture because they are toxic to soil organisms, water supplies, us and our environment — they also promote weeds (then you need chemical herbicides) and cause fast fleshy crop growth which increases pests and disease (then you need insecticides, fungicides and other pesticides). And these so called “bigger crops” have lesser nutritional quality.
    Further, the sources used in the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers often come from industrial cheaply-available waste streams — and are actually highly toxic…

  • Melanie

    Steve wouldn’t be a paid shill for the organic industry, would he? Maybe a paid shill for NOFA? Anyone who uses the term “highly toxic” to describe a perfectly safe conventional input tips their hand as an organic propagandist. So. we learn fertilizer causes weeds — ha, what a hoot! Actually it is organic farming spreading weeds out of control all over the place.

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