Dec 13, 2023
Panelists: The sooner, the better for SOE certification

The overarching message delivered by a group of panelists at the Organic Grower Summit concerning the National Organic Program’s soon-to-be-implemented Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule was to get certified and start the process immediately.

“If you are not certified, you need to leave this room and get certified,” said Meredith Kiser, compliance director for Heath & Lejeune, a Los Angeles-area distributor of organic produce, said during the Nov. 29 session.

SOE-panel-Organic Grower Summit
A Nov. 29 panel at the Organic Grower Summit discussed the National Organic Program’s Strengthening Organic Enforcement’s rule, which goes into effect on March 20, Photo courtesy Organic Produce Summit.

Four panelists and a moderator discussed the subject in a workshop session titled “SOE Deadline Looms — Are You Ready?” The title was an apt description of the main point driven home by all the participants. While they discussed other aspects of the new rule, which has an implementation deadline of March 19, the most important take-away message was that there are very few companies exempt from the certification requirement. As a group, they agreed that if a produce operation is involved in any way with organic produce, it almost certainly must go through the certification process.

The group also agreed that with only about three months between the date of the workshop and the new rule’s enforcement, it may already be too late to start the process and expect certification to be finalized. Nonetheless, that process must be started and must be started as quickly as possible.

The panel featured five well-informed organic industry members, each of whom has intimate knowledge of the new rule and its impact on the sector.

Moderator John Foster, chief operating officer of consulting firm Wolf & Associates, opened the session noting that 100% of certified operators are impacted by the new rule, as are 100% of produce companies that are anywhere on the supply chain from grower to retailer.

Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP), attacked the question of who needs to be certified head-on. She indicated the most important element of the new rule is that it reduces the number of companies that are exempt from organic certification. In fact, she advocated that everyone along the supply chain, including retailers, should opt for certification, which will go a long way toward accomplishing all of the other goals of the SOE rule, including strengthening record-keeping, strengthening oversight and reducing fraud.

“More types of businesses must be certified” she said, arguing that the supply chain is safer if everyone on it is certified. “There are very few exceptions.”
Tucker said she gets at least 10 emails a day from supply chain members explaining why they believe they are exempt. Though they often go into detail about their particular scenarios, she said very few will qualify for an exemption.
“If you are involved in organics, get certified,” she said, repeating in stark terms what she had already said several times earlier in her talk.
Tucker noted that NOP government officials have been a bit surprised by the level of interest in provisions dealing with the use of tamper-evident packaging. Seemingly, the rule was written to encourage certification by declaring that a firm can only be exempt if its only contact with organic produce is when it’s in tamper-evident packaging.
While that would allow for an exemption, Tucker indicated that the wording was not intended to create a loophole. She said even product packed in tamper-evident packaging could break down. If that occurred in an uncertified facility, it would immediately lose its right to carry the organic seal.
Another important point she made is that importers are no longer exempt from certification. In fact, all importers of organic produce must be certified.
“Tell your friends,” she said, implying that this provision in the new rule is generating lots of inquiries from the international produce community.
BIANCA- Kaprielian-OGS

Certification, and the ease with which it can be accomplished, was addressed by Bianca Kaprielian, CEO and co-owner of Fruit World, a relatively small grower-shipper in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She said it is not a difficult assignment, noting that Fruit World’s staff of just six handles it in relatively quick fashion every year. They also help a cadre of small growers do the same.

Kaprielian focused much of her time on the panel urging the retail community to certify their various distribution centers (DCs). Kaprielian said there is some pushback from the larger retailers, who are encouraging their suppliers to switch to tamper-evident packaging so their DCs can be exempt. Retailers do qualify for exemptions at the store end of the supply chain, but their DCs have to be certified unless all of the organic produce arrives in tamper-evident packaging. That seems like a huge hurdle as some items, such as organic watermelons, hard squashes, and bananas headed for a ripening room are typically packed in open containers.
Kaprielian said a small shipper such as Fruit World having to change to tamper-evident packaging would be very costly, especially for low volume items where several years of packaging must be purchased at one time. She said the dollar amount of packaging in Fruit World’s inventory would be a big blow if it had to be dumped.
She added that as a small shipper, Fruit World has no leverage to resist the demands of their larger customers. She appealed to the crowd of organic producers to work together to encourage retailers and retail distribution centers to take on this responsibility. She reiterated that achieving organic certification, especially for a large company with modern record-keeping technology and processes, is not a difficult task.
“Collectively, we can get it done,” Kaprielian said.
Foster noted that the need to “de-green” bananas is the driver convincing some retailers to subject their facilities to organic certification. He added that bananas are near the top of the volume list for virtually all retailers. It seems unlikely they are going to arrive at a DC in tamper-evident packaging, so unless the retailer wants to drop organic bananas from their stock-keeping unit list, certification appears to be inevitable in the long run.
Another perspective on the SOE rule came from Kiser, representing the viewpoint of an organic-specific wholesaler. She said Heath & Lejeune is working very closely with all of its growers and handlers with the goal of making sure each one of them is certified by Jan. 1. That 80-day cushion before the rule’s implementation date will allow the company to work through any “kinks in the chain” that may arise.
MEREDITH-Kiser-OGS panel

Like the others, Kiser noted that there are few loopholes, and companies should not be looking for them. Kiser also agreed that attaining certification is not a laborious task. She said Heath & Lejeune has an extensive list of growers it works with — both large and small — and she has personally helped them achieve that certification.

She added that the company will stop partnering with any handler that is not certified as they do not want to risk losing organic certification if a problem arises.
During the session, several speakers spoke of a scenario in which a load, or even a pallet, of organic produce in tamper-evident packaging is rejected at a DC. Presumably, the packaging was compromised, and if that produce moves to a non-certified dock, it can no longer be sold as certified organic. The same is true with any cross-docking of organic product in regular packaging at a non-certified facility.
Kiser went back to the roots of the SOE rule, stating that it is all about traceability and maintaining the integrity of the product through the supply chain. She called the lot number on any organic shipment its “Social Security number.”

While the new regulations only require handlers to ensure that the organic certification integrity was maintained prior to the product reaching their level, the speakers noted that as a practical matter, you better make sure that the handlers downstream of you are also certified. Kaprielian noted that if your organic product in non-tamper-evident packaging moves through an uncertified facility and is sold as certified organic product, it’s not your responsibility, but eventually it is going to impact you.

April Vasquez-OGS

Panelist April Vasquez is the chief certification officer for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), one of the larger organic certifying organizations in the country. She confirmed that any company that has not started the process is going to find it difficult to get it done prior to March 19. She did say that CCOF offers an expedited service (for an increased fee), and there are still some slots available in that category … but they are filling up fast.

Vasquez also revealed that the new rule requires every operator that handles organic product — whether they are certified or not — to have an organic fraud prevention plan in place by the implementation date of March 19.

Vasquez agreed that achieving certification is not that difficult and said most companies, especially the larger ones, already have most of the necessary documentation in their databases.

During a question-and-answer period, Tucker might have set some minds at ease, indicating that enforcement on March 20 will not begin with a sledgehammer. She said NOP enforcement personnel will look at potential violators and deal with each case on an individual basis. She said that a firm that has gone through the process and is just waiting for their certification application to be approved will receive a different response than “a company that asks, ‘What’s NOP?'” when the regulators arrive.

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