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Townsend Farms and Organic Certification: How are Imports Evaluated?

Amid the media fervor surrounding the Townsend Farms hepatitis A outbreak, news outlets and commentators have noted that the farm imported various berries for its frozen berry mix from countries as far off as Chile, Argentina and Turkey. Soon after the outbreak’s announcement, a lawyer for Costco – the main store chain that sold the berries – said that the source of the virus had been traced back to the pomegranate seeds grown in Turkey.

Townsend Farms products are certified as organic by both Oregon Tilth, a private third party certifier, and the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). But how is it that berries grown in Turkey, Chile and Mexico can get packaged in Oregon and certified as organic by the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

The short answer to that question lies in the fact that firms worldwide have the ability to certify farms according to the standards set forth by the USDA. As long as a proper authority can verify a farm operates according to organic standards once a year, that farm can become USDA-certified organic whether it’s outside Indianapolis or Istanbul.

The federal standards for organic certification have been in place since October 2002. Before that, each state had their own set of standards that made up a sort of patchwork of legal definitions to the word ‘organic.’

Today, there are thousands of USDA-certified organic food producers across the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe. The USDA keeps track of those through its Agricultural Marketing Service, which hosts a database of organic growers that anyone can browse on its website.

The USDA also keeps a list of certifying firms from around the world. These firms can be either private companies, such as Oregon Tilth, or authorized government agencies.

In the case of Townsend Farms, the company grows organic-certified fruit in Oregon and Washington states, but also imports its fruit from international organic farms meeting the USDA standards, meaning it can claim organic certification for all its products.

The USDA treats grants international certifying agencies parallel accreditation with agencies in the U.S., making one agency’s judgement as valid as any other’s.

“We can’t question it if another certifier says a place is organic-certified,” said Brenda Brook, organic program manager for the WSDA. “The thing that gets confusing from the consumer standpoint is when something’s from Turkey, for example, but it’s certified by a U.S. firm. [The organic certification program] is really just a chain of custody.”

Companies don’t necessarily need to be certified by an agency nearby, either. While the WSDA certifies around 90 percent of the organic operations in Washington State, farms in the state are welcome to hire a different certifier. The WSDA also certifies operations in Alaska, as well as out-of-state facilities run by companies based in the state, such as Starbucks.

International certifiers may also be accredited to validate organic standards in their own country, so they’re complying with multiple checklists.

The U.S. has also established a few equivalency arrangements with Canada and, as of one year ago, the European Union. The arrangements recognize the differences in each country’s organic guidelines, but consider the end food product to be held to an equivalent standard.

Organics and food safety

One thing organic-certification should not be confused with, Book said, is a food safety standard. But that’s not to say that holding farms to organic standards could not have food safety benefits, either.

While organic certifiers are concerned with the prohibited materials side of contamination over the microbial variety, paying attention to one can often mean paying attention to another. Organic standards put preventative controls in place for pests, for example, which may reduce risk of fecal contamination.

“If you meet organic requirements, it’s going to be easier to meet other requirements,” Book said. “We go into places that have all these other private business quality requirements and certifications, and for them, organic is really easy. They’re levels that support each other.”

In regard to the contamination of Turkish pomegranate seeds with hepatitis A, the virus was most likely spread by an infected field worker or another food handler, not the result of a food safety oversight on the farm.

Book said that she feels certified organic operations won’t have a hard time complying with new Food Safety Modernization Act rules. Organic farms are already acquainted with record-keeping requirements and controlling contamination, even if it’s not necessarily microbial contamination.

“We don’t see that organic standards necessarily overlap with food safety standards,” she said, “but we see how they can support each other.”

© Food Safety News
  • Michael Bulger

    Some readers might be interested to know that USDA estimates that imports account for 12-18% of Organic retail sales in the United States. The other 80-90%, of course, would be domestically produced.

    http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-trade.aspx#.UbGhu-B7eK8

  • Diane Hirsch

    “In regard to the contamination of Turkish pomegranate seeds with
    hepatitis A, the virus was most likely spread by an infected field
    worker or another food handler, not the result of a food safety
    oversight on the farm.”–food safety on the farm should include a program addressing worker health and hygiene that may serve to prevent contamination by a sick field worker.

  • fed up

    Never mind organic vs, not. What about labeling country of origin on the product? The Townsend Farms brand boasts family farming in Oregon on the label, yet they are providing products from 3 other countries without notifying the consumer. Many meats are sold this way as well. It is impossible for the consumer to make an informed decision on what to purchase when the labels are filled with flat out lies.

    • Notonenameleft

      Townsends appear only to care about their bottom line. Ask anyone in the industry who has the displeasure of dealing with them.

    • JoeGuy

      TOTALLY AGREE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • mamasita43

    There should be a checkpoint in USDA that cyncs with CDC to catch viral as well as other microbials to have a better system in place to prevent these types of deaths from happening.

    • Krsx

      Hep A has a very low chance of actually causing death. It’s something like 4 out of 1000 unless over 50 then it’s about 17 out of 1000. Also most people go undiagnosed even in this country.