SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- Organic food has gone from the fringe to many people's fridge, yet the $5 billion industry is still based mostly on trust.
Consumers will pay more for food they believe to be free of pesticides and grown in an a way that protects the environment. But can they always trust it?Not necessarily, according to interviews with more than a dozen people in the organic foods industry, including state officials, farmers, inspectors, processors, wholesale buyers and retailers.
When a label says "grown and processed in accordance with the California Organic Foods Act of 1990," it does not necessarily mean the food is truly organic, industry insiders said.
Unless the food also has been independently certified, they said, it's likely no one has checked to ensure the food meets minimum state standards.
"The savvy customer knows that if it isn't certified, it isn't organic," said Route 1 Farms owner Jonathan Steinberg, who grows $1 million of mixed vegetables a year on 120 rented acres in Santa Cruz County and has been certified organic since 1982.
To sell something as organic, growers have to register with the state and pay an annual fee -- from $25 for under $10,000 in sales to $2,000 for $5 million or more. Sellers of processed foods pay just $100 for an entire line of products.
They also have to keep extensive paperwork showing the food is free from pesticides and synthetic chemicals.
But until recently, the California Department of Food and Agriculture hasn't done much more than look into complaints, which have been rare. And the Department of Health Services, which inspects processed food, has yet to set up an organic compliance program.
"When you register with the state there are basically no on-site inspections. They come out and say 'yup, you're organic,' end of story," said vegetable grower Dick Peixoto of Watsonville. "Most customers want that assurance that you're actually being monitored."
A federal organic law -- more than a decade in the planning -- will require certification as early as this fall.
Meanwhile, most major supermarkets have acted on their own. About 85 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold by California's 2,500 registered organic growers, packers and shippers are now certified.
But most national retailers -- including such natural food chains as Whole Foods Market -- still don't require certification for processed food.
With the industry growing by 20 percent a year, the state agriculture department's budget has grown to $350,000 -- enough for 500 inspections this year, and for the first time, random, unannounced soil and tissue samplings, program director Ray Green said.
For now, the industry remains small enough for organic violators to be easily discovered, and by all accounts, fraud rarely occurs. When it does, Green avoids fines or criminal charges, unless the fraud seems intentional.
One such incident involved San Diego-based Petrou Foods Inc., which was caught selling olive oil as organic when some of the olives were actually harvested from a golf course. That investigation resulted in a felony conviction and $10,000 in fines.
"If someone's doing something that's not right, the whole industry learns about it. And believe me, that can be more detrimental than anything else," said Margaret Wittenberg, an executive at Whole Foods.