Before there were USDA organic regulations, the forward-looking state of California passed its own organic regulations in 1990. Today, California is the only state in the U.S. with its own State Organic Program (SOP) that provides enforcement and regulatory activities within the State; much like the National Organic Program (NOP) does for the rest of the country..
The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) established the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC) to advise the Secretary of CDFA on enforcement and other organic activities in California.
I have diligently served on COPAC since November 2007 and have witnessed the program grow and change into a vital agency that serves all California organic producers, handlers, processors, retailers, and consumers.
In 2017 organic agriculture in California accounted for $2.9 billion in sales. This truly makes the state an organic “hot spot” with more than 40 percent of all organic production in the country originating right here.
Because of the SOP’s diligent activities, we can rest assured that when something is labeled organic in California, the producers are strictly following organic standards and production methods.
What does the CA State Organic Program do and why is it needed?
The SOP provides an extra level of enforcement that goes well above what the NOP does. This means there is an added layer of protection against organic fraud if you are a producer or consumer in the golden state.
The SOP is responsible for handling complaints that are lodged against organic operations operating in California. They investigate those complaints and work with organic certifiers, the CA Department of Public Health (CDPH), and the NOP to make sure they are all resolved in a timely manner.
They enlist County Agricultural Commissioners (CAC) to make routine spot inspections at Farmer’s Markets, retailers, and production and handling sites, which includes testing for pesticide residues.
Diligently checking signage and labeling, the CACs make sure that if someone is selling something labeled organic, they follow the rules.
Additionally, the SOP processes applications and distributes funds from the federal Cost Share Program to help certified farms and operations offset the cost of organic certification and registration
The SOP has begun testing for GMO residues in organically labeled products, which will shed more light on GMO contamination and organic labeling fraud.
The level of residues samples, inspections and complaint follow-up is enhanced in California because of the work of the SOP. These actions far exceed the amount of enforcement activities performed in any other state. You can view a recap of their current enforcement activities here.
The SOP also collects valuable data on the number of acres grown on many organic commodities, which help inform producers, researchers and policymakers on the future needs of the organic industry.
How does the State Organic Program do its work?
All organic producers, handlers, processors, and wholesalers of organic products must register with the SOP unless they are under $5000 in sales. The SOP then verifies their compliance with organic program requirements from production to the point of sale, utilizing funds provided from registration fees.
In fiscal year 2016-2017 the SOP collected $1.5 million in fees that supported $2.9 billion in organic sales. They provided workshops throughout California and performed 1,389 inspections of organic operations including production sites, handling facilities, farmers’ markets, retail stores, and roadside stands. They collected 312 samples (624 lbs.) for pesticide residue analysis.
The SOP also conducted 100 complaint investigations and processed appeals that provide due process for those involved in a complaint or potentially fraudulent activity.
Do you farm, work or eat in California and want to be more involved?
The California Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC) is a volunteer 15-member board that meets in person at least three times each year to review the work of the SOP and give recommendations to the CDFA Secretary.
I have been a willing soldier on this committee since 2007 and was the chair or vice chair for almost eight of those years. It’s been stimulating, provocative and educational for me throughout.
If you are interested in getting involved in something bigger, this is a great way to dip your toe in the organic policy waters. Consider applying to serve on COPAC for a three-year term.
First view the vacancies that need to be filled and see if you qualify for one of the open seats. Don’t be afraid to apply for an alternate seat. That’s how I started and ended up leading the committee for many years.
Then review the steps you need to take to apply for membership on the California Organic Products Advisory Board.
Finally, complete the CDFA questionnaire for prospective members and a letter of recommendation or two from someone involved in organic and send it to Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org. You should hear back in a few months and be on your way to a leadership role in organic California.
Why do I serve?
I continue to serve on COPAC because I care about the integrity of the organic seal, and I know the CA SOP is making a real difference in compliance.
It affords me the opportunity to understand what some of the organic challenges are in the state and to help move the needle a little more towards organic as the gold standard. Networking with other organic leaders at meetings is a side benefit I will miss once I term out.
Going that extra mile and serving the organic industry above and beyond my everyday duties gives me a deep sense of satisfaction that is priceless.
If you live in or do business in California won’t you consider serving?