State of Science :: Commentaries
Liquid Fertilizer Debacle Leads to Questions About the Integrity of Organic Food
Author(s): Dr. Charles Benbrook
The Organic Center
[This piece originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of the Organic Center's monthly e-newsletter, "The Scoop."]
The Sacramento Bee broke the story about ammonium sulfate-spiked organic liquid fertilizers on December 28, 2008. The story triggered a flurry of negative commentaries about the integrity of organic food. This episode and its aftermath is sure to arise again and again as critics of the organic industry make the case that consumers cannot trust the organic label and are paying premium prices for products that are not different than conventional food.
The Bee story focused on the findings of a California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) investigation of a Salinas-based company called California Liquid Fertilizer (CLF). This company had marketed for seven years organic liquid fertilizer products that contained higher levels of nitrogen than present in similar products manufactured by other companies. These CLF products won sizable market share because they were sold at a lower price and contained as much, or more nitrogen than competing products.
A number of organizations and individuals in the organic community grew suspicious that California Liquid Fertilizer products were not legitimate. Two organizations started asking questions as early as 2004 -- the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an organic certifier, and the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Individuals in both organizations tried to obtain information from the company to verify that the inputs purchased by CLF could support the production of the volume and concentration of nitrogen-containing liquid fertilizers sold by the company. These efforts were not successful, since the company claimed that details of the manufacturing process were proprietary and CLF refused to provide access to the detailed records that would be necessary to carry out an assessment of the volume of inputs purchased by CLF relative to the volume of fertilizer produced and sold. OMRI has since rewritten its agreement with manufacturers requiring access to such records.
The nitrogen in organically approved liquid fertilizer products comes from starting materials that are naturally high in protein like fish, blood meal, meat and feathers. Earthworm castings and some food processing wastes are also high in protein, and are sometimes used in manufacturing organic nitrogen fertilizers. But on the basis of each unit (percent) of nitrogen in a finished fertilizer product, the cost of these natural sources of protein is much higher than petro-chemical-based sources of nitrogen. According to the Bee story, petro-chemical based ammonium sulfate is up to twenty-times cheaper than approved organic sources of nitrogen, such as ground up fish.
In their spring 2007 newsletter, CCOF published an article entitled "Liquid Organic Fertilizers: Friend or Foe?" This article openly explained the basic issues and concerns with organic liquid fertilizers, especially those manufactured by California Liquid Fertilizer. The article points out that
"The skill in making fertilizers is to stabilize the nitrogen while still making a product which has the nitrogen available."
According to CCOF, "The rule of thumb in fertilizer manufacturing is that every 6.2% protein turns into 1% nitrogen." A typical fish-based liquid fertilizer might contain 5% nitrogen, which means it started out with 31% liquid protein, or 62% protein on a dry weight basis. In CCOF's judgment, "liquid fertilizers that claim more than 6% nitrogen seem improbable through normal chemistry."
California Liquid Fertilizer, however, had marketed several products with 6% or more nitrogen, and another company, Westbridge Agricultural Products, marketed a 14% nitrogen organic liquid fertilizer product. This Westbridge 14-0-0 liquid fertilizer was never reviewed or approved by OMRI.
According to the Bee story, an industry whistleblower tipped off the CDFA in June of 2004 that certain liquid fertilizer companies were using ammonium sulfate to artificially boost the nitrogen content of organic liquid fertilizers. This "industry whistleblower" could have worked for a liquid fertilizer company, an organic certifier, or conceivably, an organic farm operation.
About one year later, a CDFA inspector tested a sample of Biolizer XN, the leading product of California Liquid Fertilizer, and confirmed the presence of ammonium sulfate, an input not allowed in any organic fertilizer product.
Further testing was done in 2006, and again ammonium sulfate was found. Numerous attempts were made by CDFA inspectors to get the company to explain its production practices and sources of nitrogen, to no avail. As the company stonewalled CDFA, just as they had stonewalled CCOF and OMRI, CDFA inspectors intensified the search for answers, and in 2006 intercepted two tank cars of ammonium sulfate that had been shipped to California Liquid Fertilizer from a mid-western food processing plant.
Despite catching the company red-handed, it took CDFA another six months to drive the product off the market. In January 2007, a settlement was reached between the company and CDFA that removed the product from the market. The violation leading to the action was recorded as "improper labeling."
The slow pace of the investigation and delay in CDFA action was caused by two major factors. First, CDFA did not have in place a well-defined process to carry out such investigations of an organic input manufacturer, nor were policies and procedures in place to craft and implement enforcement actions. In short, CDFA had to make up procedures during the course of an active investigation.
The second factor that slowed progress was the focus of the CDFA on the investigation of the serious September 2006 outbreak of E. coli O157 illnesses from fresh cut salad greens grown and packaged in and around the Salinas Valley.
Response by the Organic Community
No one involved in this case within the organic community is happy about how this episode was handled. Both CCOF and OMRI took several actions beginning in 2004 to raise questions and obtain answers about "too good to be true" liquid organic fertilizer products. But these organizations lacked the tools to compel credible answers from the company.
CCOF's article on liquid organic fertilizers in its Spring 2007 newsletter brought the issue, and underlying suspicions, fully into the open. CCOF played a central and valuable role in providing information to the CDFA investigators, and pushed CDFA to reach closure in its investigation and take appropriate action. During the glacier-paced CDFA investigation, CCOF continued to work openly with OMRI and others in an attempt to determine what was actually in the suspect organic fertilizer products.
In December 21, 2007 a communication to all CCOF certified growers and allied industry partners, CCOF prohibited any further use of the 14-0-0 liquid fertilizer product marketed by Westbridge Agricultural Products. A few weeks later, a similar announcement was made prohibiting further use of existing supplies of the California Liquid Fertilizer product Biolizer XN.
Just this week, CCOF issued a strongly worded document entitled <"Announcement: 2009 Liquid Fertilizer Approval Policy: http://www.ccof.org/Certification_Updates_Resources.php#liquidfert>. The announcement explains that CCOF will no longer internally review blended liquid fertilizers with greater than 3% nitrogen content that are not OMRI or Washington State Department of Agriculture approved. Moreover, CCOF is requiring manufacturers of liquid fertilizers to obtain third-party onsite inspections by August 15, 2009. During the inspections, compliance must be demonstrated with all applicable NOP rules. In addition, documentation must be provided to CCOF that proves that the liquid fertilizer inputs purchased and received by the company are sufficient to produce the volume of liquid fertilizers sold by the company.
Major organic companies in the area also took action to prevent any further use of CLF products once it became clear that the State's investigation had confirmed serious problems with certain products. In 2008, Earthbound Farm (EF) put in place a program requiring independent verification of the contents and quality of liquid organic fertilizers containing 5% or more nitrogen.
Samples from every lot of liquid fertilizer sold to an EF grower now have to be tested using a specialized radio-isotope method adapted and tested for this application by Earthbound. The test is designed to verify the source of the nitrogen in liquid fertilizer products, and can reliably distinguish between animal based sources and petro-chemical feedstocks. In addition, beginning in the 2008 crop season, EB carried out random sampling and testing of liquid organic fertilizers applied by its contract growers, in part to determine whether the other steps taken to weed out fraudulent products were working as hoped.
OMRI, CCOF, CDFA, and organic farmers in California remain on high alert and investigations continue of other organic liquid fertilizer companies. One company under a cloud of suspicion for some time just announced it is ceasing operations. The added steps and independent oversight of organic liquid fertilizer products are bound to much more quickly detect any company trying to pad their profit margins by spiking organic fertilizers with cheap, petro-chemical sources of nitrogen.
Sources: "Organic farms unknowingly used a synthetic fertilizer," Sacramento Bee, December 28, 2008
<"Liquid Organic Fertilizers: Friend or Foe?"; http://ccof.org/pdf/CCOF_liquid_fert_article_spring_2007.pdf
> CCOF Spring 2007 newsletter.
July, 2008 letter from Will Daniels, Earthbound Farm V-P for Quality, Food Safety and Organic Integrity to all Earthbound Farm suppliers.
Editor's Note: So what happens next?
It is too soon to write the final chapter describing the end results of the actions of California Liquid Fertilizer and other input manufacturers that took shortcuts to increase profit margins. Whether, and to what degree this episode erodes, or enhances consumer confidence in organic food will be determined by the concrete steps taken by the organic community to prevent future incidents of this nature.
Lesson number one is that not all businesses in the organic industry can be trusted. There is a continued role for careful oversight by both private groups like OMRI and certifiers, as well as by government agencies like CDFA and the USDA's National Organic Program.
In order to detect and deal with similar problems in the future more quickly and forcefully, new mechanisms are needed to empower certifiers and OMRI to deal with suspect input manufacturers. Organic inputs that appear "too good to be true" may often prove to be just that.
The organic liquid fertilizers marketed by California Liquid Fertilizer were approved by OMRI for use in organic production, based on OMRI's review of product information supplied by the company. At this point, OMRI reviews are based for the most part on information provided by manufactures, which is cross-referenced against other information from independent sources. OMRI has added to its agreements with manufacturers the ability to audit records during on-site inspections and has stepped up its inspection program. Currently several fertilizer products have been, or are being inspected during the OMRI review process.
Clearly, some entity in the organic community should have the capacity to address and resolve, both more quickly and decisively, questions that arise with organic inputs. While OMRI has the technical skills and experience to cost-effectively carry out such assessments, it lacks the authority to compel companies to cooperate, since the OMRI listing service is voluntary, not compulsory. Overcoming these constraints, or empowering some other entity to carry out such investigations, looms as a critical piece of unfinished business for the organic community as a whole.
Lesson number two is that government action can take far too long to reach closure, and result in far too weak a response, if the goal is preserving and building consumer confidence in organic food and farming.
This is not the first time a fertilizer manufacturer has duped farmers. There is a branch in CDFA dedicated to policing the fertilizer industry. But keeping the fertilizer industry honest is nowhere near the top of CDFA's list of priorities, and it generally takes a long time to build a strong case against a company that has developed the ability to defraud its customers, certifiers, and even oversight bodies like OMRI. The capacity and willingness of CDFA to take such actions in California exceeds by several orders of magnitude the will and ability of most other state agencies to address such problems.
Because government agencies cannot be counted upon to act quickly or decisively in policing the integrity of organic inputs, the organic community will have to devise and carry out home-grown solutions to this problem. Several useful steps have already been taken, including the just-announced new CCOF policy and the requirement by Earthbound Farm that all companies supplying organic liquid fertilizer products to its contract growers must obtain, and keep current third-party certification verifying the source of nitrogen in liquid fertilizer products.
Properly designed, random testing of inputs should be carried out on behalf of the whole industry, and when test results produce evidence of problems or possible fraud, decisive actions need to be taken quickly.
A third lesson is that forceful and clear responses are needed to counteract wild and unsubstantiated claims that seem to invariably arise in the wake of this sort of incident. For example, the Eco-Eats blog on the Plenty Magazine website covered the Sacramento Bee story in a piece entitled "Another tainted food scandal." Many other commentators asserted that this episode meant that consumers had been wasting their money on organic food that really was not organic.
These assertions are reckless and flat wrong, and in the absence of effective responses, they will gain legitimacy.
The actions of California Liquid Fertilizer were despicable, but they did not in any way "taint" organic food. The use of liquid fertilizers spiked with ammonium sulfate did not make the harvested foods less nutritious or safe. Virtually all the environmental and consumer benefits stemming from organic production remained intact in the food harvested from acres treated with the fraudulent liquid fertilizers.
It is also not true that the organic food harvested from fields treated with the fraudulent fertilizer was, for this reason, not organic. The farmers purchasing OMRI-approved fertilizer products, with the consent of certifiers, had no way of knowing that the products they were applying to their fields contained some prohibited materials. They were innocent victims. In such instances, certifiers rarely revoke certification of a grower, especially when the consequences of the variance in compliance have no bearing on food quality and safety, and little or no impact on environmental quality.
Still, many people will be perplexed that such an incident could happen in the organic food industry. In looking for answers, ponder for a few minutes how Bernard Madoff was able to pull off a $50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme, even after serious questions had been officially raised with financial regulators.
Yes, we have important work to do in preventing new problems with organic inputs, but we also should take comfort in the fact that responsible people and organic institutions played key roles in identifying the problem and driving the fraudulent fertilizers off the market.