A Certified Transitional Organic Program Remains in Limbo

USDA vacancy, some organic bickering, stall plan to allow ingredients made during the three transitional years on a farm to be called 'Certified Transitional.'

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Political appointments – or lack thereof – appear to be delaying a USDA-sanctioned program to recognize ingredients that come from farms that are midway through an organic certification process.

A transitional organic program has been considered for at least 15 years as a way to help finance farms that are in the three-year process of getting organic certification and to incentive them to complete the process. As a result, there should be more “quasi” organic products and ingredients available to the market.

When some long-tenured organic inspectors, such as Quality Assurance International, began certifying ingredients as “transitional organic” according to their own criteria, USDA and the Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) wanted to create a national standard that everyone would adhere to, just like the national organic certification.

The National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP) looked like it would come into existence earlier this year, but the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance threatened to sue, claiming a transitional program would dilute the value of fully certified organics.

USDA responded that it would re-evaluate the NCTP, but departures at the agency, especially the lack of an administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, have put the program in limbo.

Organic products may not be for everyone, but they are the product of choice for an already significant and growing number of consumers. But the growth of organic acreage in the U.S. has never kept pace with demand for organic products; as a result, increasing amounts of imports fill the gap. And some of those are dubious.

While farmers recognize the benefits of full organic certification, converting fields from conventional farming methods to organic takes at least three years and is no small feat. During the three-year transition, farmers use organic practices but aren’t paid organic prices.

“Certification of farms in transition for technical support and supply-chain recognition can be a key aspect of encouraging increased domestic organic production,” says the OTA. While several certifiers have transitional certification programs, these are not harmonized and lack consistent oversight, OTA says.

“Institutionalizing” transitional certification could provide better-designed and improved access to USDA support services, such as conservation incentives, risk management products and farm loan programs. Better support programs would lead to better success rates and higher performance of transitioned operations.

But it would not include a symbol.

In order to minimize the potential for products labeled as “Transitional” to compete with organic offerings, there will be no allowance for the use of a transitional seal on the principle display panel of a transitional product, OTA says. An ACAs transitional seal may be used under the address of the final handler of the product on the information panel, but that seal must be distinct from the ACA’s organic seal. There will be no allowance for the use of the term “organic” to describe a Certified Transitional product.

However, the end-product marketer may mention in “romance language” that certain ingredients are from farms making the transition. Kellogg’s Kashi unit has been a leader in this effort. In 2016, Kashi purchased the first-ever crop of Certified Transitional ingredients – hard red winter wheat – sourced from 860 acres of transitional farmland, for use in Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits. Just one year later, Kashi was sourcing products from more than 3,474 Certified Transitional acres – more than four times that of the previous year – all on their way to becoming truly organic.

A national transitional program would provide a better look at the expected growth of organic acreage, thereby helping business planning and contract development for buyers and producers. And establishing some type of price premium – above that of standard crops and ingredients but not as high as certified organic ones – would provide support for these farmers in transition. It would reduce the financial burden that a three-year transition period poses and incentivize them to complete their move toward organic certification.

But with out a national program, “There is currently no assurance that a crop labeled as ‘transitional’ in the marketplace is coming from a producer who is actually planning to attain organic status or that the crop has been grown on land free of prohibited substances for at least one year,” OTA notes.

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