(May 6) WASHINGTON, D.C. — After delaying for a week to include more agents on the list, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released the first round of agencies accredited to certify organic growers.

Twenty-eight domestic agencies were on the list, along with 10 state agents and four agents overseas. The list comes as part of the department’s plan to have all qualified organic production and handling operations certified to use the USDA seal by Oct. 21.

Under the new standards, all agricultural products bearing the organic label must come from farms or handling operations that have been certified by one of the agencies on the list or by the USDA itself. Growing operations that sell less than $5,000 per year of organic products are exempt from certification.

SITE AUDIT WITHIN 120 DAYS

While the list includes companies that have been accredited, those entities will still have to complete a successful site audit or meet other conditions — to be specified by the USDA — within 120 days.

Brian McElroy, certification services manager for California Certified Organic Farmers, Santa Cruz, Calif., said he thinks the 120-day deadline is a bit unrealistic. He said companies were to have been notified of the conditions that they must meet the day the list came out. As of May 1, CCOF had not received any such notification.

“That’s just an indicator of how complicated this thing is going to be,” McElroy said. “We’ve all been dancing around this thing for 12 years and now it comes down to 120 days. That’s a little frustrating.”

OCTOBER DEADLINE

In spite of these concerns and the fact that the department missed its own deadline for releasing the list by a week, McElroy said he thinks the program will still hit its October deadline for full implementation. But it won’t happen without a little work.

“The devil is in the details,” he said. “Now we’re all trying to sort through the details of this thing. It’s hard.”

In spite of the one-week delay and other potential problems, Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., hailed the release of the list as a key step forward in implementing the national organic certification program.

“It’s critical to have these agencies certified by the USDA,” she said. “Without this list, we can’t move forward.”

DiMatteo added that she wasn’t concerned about the program hitting its October deadline.

“Getting this list out very close to its original deadline gives me great hope and expectation for that national organics program to be implemented by Oct. 1,” she said.

EXPERIENCED COMPANIES

DiMatteo said she was gratified to see so many experienced companies on the list, as well as a number of state organizations.

“There was some concern that the state programs would not be interested in having a role in the national program,” she said. “It’s important to have the state programs involved. It creates a good connection between organic agriculture and the state departments of agriculture.”

One thing DiMatteo said she hopes will be accomplished with a national program is to change the way the industry, as well as the general public, views the area of organic growing.

“This should remove some of the barriers that have existed in people’s thinking,” she said.

“They will begin to see the USDA organic seal on products and see a consistency in labeling. This makes a statement that organics is a legitimate form of agriculture.”

More information is available online at www.usda.gov.