(Web Editor’s note: The following article is a significantly extended version of a piece appearing in the Feb. 2 print edition of The Packer).

(Jan. 29, 4:18 p.m.) In the wake of what may be a second California supplier found to be distributing fertilizer polluted by a synthetic compound, the organic produce industry is determined to find a solution.

The investigation into Port Organics Products Ltd., Buttonwillow, Calif., comes less than a month after revelations that California Liquid Fertilizer, Gonzales, Calif., had for several years sold a fertilizer containing ammonium sulfate, a compound banned by the National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the issue has been sobering for those on the West Coast, the concern is less serious to the East. The Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association have not been besieged with calls from concerned growers or retailers.

“We have heard about slumping sales mainly due to the economy, but not to this issue,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based PMA.

“We’re not hearing anything from our members,” said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh, Washington, D.C.

Both organizations support strong penalties for violators of the National Organic Program.

“Consumers must have confidence in the rules and that the rules are being followed,” Means said. “When they’re not, there must be punishment.”

Maintaining organic standards is becoming more important as that segment of the produce industry continues to grow, Gombas said.

Maintaining those standards may be easier said than done, according to the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass. In a written statement released Jan. 26, the association pointed out fertilizer labeling is regulated on a state-by-state basis and is not always compatible with organic food labeling. The statement read in part:

“The word, organic, on a fertilizer does not mean that a fertilizer product is acceptable for use on an organic farm, and this situation is very confusing for farmers and consumers alike. OTA has been working on this issue for nearly a decade, both to help its members understand the differences in product labels and to harmonize fertilizer product labels to limit the chance for errors.”

Marizyme 4-2-2 Fishilizer, a fertilizer produced by Port Organics Products, was widely used by organic growers in parts of California, said Scott Mabs, director of marketing for Homegrown Organic Farms, Porterville, Calif.

“Without conclusive information (about the Port Organics investigation), we’re just sitting and waiting,” he said. “But we have stepped up communications with our growers.”

Homegrown Organic Farms is the marketing agent for more than 40 organic growers in California. In addition to liquid fertilizer, those growers use substantial amounts of compost. Mabs said.

The growers are fortunate in that the largest concentration of the state’s dairies is in Tulare County, which is close to most growers represented by Homegrown Organic Farms, he said.

It appears little of the questionable fertilizer was distributed outside of California.

“The issue with liquid fertilizers is that the value to weight ratio is such that it wouldn’t pay to ship it this far,” said Jake Blehm, director of operations for the Rodale Institute, Kutztown, Pa.

Blehm, a recent transplant to Pennsylvania, is well acquainted with California’s organic growing industry. Before taking the Rodale post, he worked for more than two decades in California, he said.

“Growers I worked with (in California) usually sourced fairly close to home, less than 100 miles,” Blehm said.

Reports of the tainted fertilizer had not reached southern Florida, Stanley Glaser, owner of Glaser Organic Farms, Miami, said Jan. 26. But the reports could affect sales if the news became general knowledge, he said, because his customers want to be able to trust the source.

Glaser, who uses only products obtained from suppliers close to his acreage, was not surprised to hear of violations.

“As long as there are parameters and there is money involved, some people are going to try to get around them,” he said. “It’s like cockroaches: if you see one, there are probably a thousand in the walls.”

A problem for the organic produce industry, Glaser said, is that there are many different practices in organic farming.

“It’s probably more varied than conventional farming,” he said.

The Rodale Institute, founded as the Soil and Health Foundation in 1947, is a 330-acre organic farming and research operation, which dedicates about 8 acres to composting. The institute seeks to build soils primarily through compost, Blehm said.

“I think liquid fertilizer probably has a place in the portfolio of products, but by itself doesn’t build soil and sequester carbon and other things important to organic agriculture,” he said.

Getting enough material for composting is one of the limitations when building large organic farming operations, Blehm said.

“Sometimes we have to scramble to get enough material, and we treat only about a third of the acreage every year,” he said.

One solution to the problem of suppliers who knowingly sell tainted products, Mabs said, is strong, consistent enforcement.

“As organic produce becomes a bigger and bigger industry, there are more options for people who won’t play by the rules,” he said.

Whether the West Coast furor over the issue will negatively affect sales will be difficult to track, Blehm said, but added that negative news is never beneficial. .

“I think people want to know they’re getting what they pay for,” he said. “There needs to be more oversight.”

Glaser, who grows tropical fruit and winter vegetables, is not optimistic. The problem, he said, is the national standards should include categories between 100% conventionally grown and 100% organic.

“The government drew a line in the sand and said one side was organic and one side wasn’t,” Glaser said. “It creates cheating.”

As a result, Glaser said he doubts there can be more teeth put in the enforcement of the National Organic Program.

“How much oversight can you have?” he asked. “They’re trying to make an ungovernable situation governable.”