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WSJ story relevance questioned by Organic Trade Association

In its Dec. 9 edition, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is having difficulty monitoring the more than 25,000 farms and other organizations that sell organic crops and livestock because of the tripling in the size of that sector over the past decade.

WSJ noted that there are currently 81 accredited agents or groups that can certify food as organic under the USDA’s National Organic Program. But the newspaper reported that “of the 37 that had a complete review this year, 23 were cited for failing to correctly enforce certification requirements on farms in audits, according to an internal Agriculture Department report.”

WSJ added that the USDA report found that the 23 firms “didn’t properly conduct onsite inspections or correctly review applications for certifications....”

In a separate Wall Street Journal investigation of USDA inspection records, WSJ found that since 2005 “38 of the 81 certifying agents failed on at least one occasion to uphold basic Agriculture Department standards.”

Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, headquartered in Washington, DC, didn’t dispute the findings of the audits, but does not believe they are cause for concern.

She told The Produce News that by their very nature, third-party audits are designed to find inconsistencies and correct them. With regard to the NOP audits, Batcha said one major goal is to make sure all certifying agents are performing their duties in a consistent manner and members of the organic community are being judged by the same standards no matter where the certification is taking place.

Batcha has reviewed the information that the WSJ story was based on and said in some cases it was data more than five years old. And in many instances the failures were administrative in nature.

She believes that no time in the history of the National Organic Program has the USDA been in a better position to provide oversight of the certifying agents. The organic industry, she said, has successfully lobbied for increased funding to both certify and audit the certifiers as the industry has grown.

Of more concern, Batcha said, would be a third-party audit that found no areas that need correcting. She said there have been significant changes to the NOP over the years and it is understandable that many certifiers would have deficient areas discovered during an audit.

Batcha said trust in the USDA’s stamp of organic certification is essential and she does not believe that trust has been compromised or misplaced. She indicated that, by and large, the certifying agents are doing a great job and applying the standards uniformly across the country.

She called the WSJ story and the information that it was based on a “snapshot in time” that in some cases reflected information that was five years old, and reiterated that she has no doubt that product being sold across the country with the USDA organic certification meets the standards of the National Organic Program.

The WSJ story did quote the USDA as making the same points as the OTA executive. The story stated that the “USDA said it requires certifiers to comply with numerous requirements, and the problems found by the Journal and the agency’s internal report reflected ‘a very rigorous accreditation process that requires full compliance and correction of identified issues.’ Those that fall out of compliance, like the 23 cited this year, get the opportunity to correct the problem, but are at risk of being removed from the certification program if the problem isn’t fixed.”

WSJ noted that the USDA said its certifiers were in compliance with 97 percent of its regulations.

California Giant event helps Salvation Army, families in need

For the fifth year in a row, California Giant Berry Farms has participated in the local NBC Affiliate KSBW holiday event called ‘Share Your Holiday.’ Each year the station has a telethon-style event throughout the central coast of California over an eight-hour time period encouraging the community to donate food, clothing, toys and cash to support the local chapters of the Salvation Army.IMG 4385Bill Moncovich, president and CEO of California Giant, with Santa and KSBW TV anchor Brittany Neilsen.

During the Dec. 12 event, California Giant employees — along with TV Anchor Brittany Nielsen — greeted hundreds of locals in the community as they dropped off more than 900 toys, hundreds of pounds of canned food, blankets, clothing and cash donations. In addition to sponsoring the drop location, California Giant donated 100 toys for kids in need to ensure they had something under the tree from Santa and 500 frozen turkeys to make sure each family had Christmas dinner.

As a whole, the event (held at five different locations) raised more than $162,000, which is 30 percent over the previous year’s record. The event also raised 10,704 pounds in non-perishable food; 1,753 pounds of clothes; and 9,928 toys (a 16 percent increase over last year).

“The staff was proud to participate again and be part of such a positive program to support our local community," Bill Moncovich, president and chief executive officer, said in a press release. "It was inspirational to see so many people come out to our cooler in Watsonville to donate and share in the spirit of giving” says . (pictured above with TV Anchor Brittany Neilsen/KSBW and Santa)

Mexican veg deal coming on for Ciruli Bros.

RIO RICO, AZ — Mexican vegetable volume is building this December for Ciruli Bros. LLC, based here.

Chris Ciruli, the firm’s chief operating officer, indicated Dec. 9 that the Los Mochis, Sinaloa, green bean deal had just begun. Ciruli was also receiving hot peppers and green, yellow and Mexican gray squash.

Slightly farther to the south, Culiacan was shipping eggplant and cucumbers, with colored Bell peppers, tomatoes and Romas due to start by Christmas.

“Those will be our last new items until mangos start March 1," he said.

Ciruli expects to be importing and distributing seasonal Mexican produce into May.

Second annual ShopRite Sprouts Awards

The ShopRite Sprouts program, an eight-week incentive program designed to encourage children to try new fruits and vegetables, held a special awards ceremony earlier this month.

In this year’s program, participating children tried more than 104 varieties of fruits and veggies combined, including varieties of fresh, frozen, canned and dried product, as well as 100 percent juice. Those that topped the list were bananas, apples, carrots and tomatoes.shoprShopRite of Little Falls, NJ, announced the top three winners of its second annual ShopRite Sprouts Awards at a special ceremony at the Totowa Library.

Heather Shasa, full-time store dietitian at Little Falls ShopRite initiated the program as a potential avenue for parents and guardians to have the resources, educational materials and recipes necessary to embark on their own fruit and vegetable journeys for their children and families.

“According to a 2009 study by researchers at Ohio State University, just 16 percent of children ages 6 to 11 meet the government's guidelines [for fruits and vegetables],” Shasa said in a press release. “Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, all of which are important for proper growth and development. It is essential that healthy eating habits are established at a young age as these eating behaviors tend to continue into adulthood. Little Sprouts is a fun way to get these kids engaged and thinking about healthy eating.”

Each time a child tried a fruit or vegetable, they filled out an activity sheet and received a stamp on a stamp card. Once they received five stamps, they received a prize, and a new stamp card was issued. The activity sheets then decorated the windows of Little Falls ShopRite.

Cooking classes were added at the Totowa (NJ) Library where children could create and sample recipes featuring produce in a fun and inviting atmosphere amongst their peers. Topics included Fun with the Veggetti, Pizza Pizazz with Cauliflower Pizza Crusts and Healthy Halloween. In addition, in-store events featuring fruits and vegetables allowed participants to receive extra stamps on their stamp cards.

USApple reporting 2014 apple crop is one of the largest on record

On Dec. 1, this year’s fresh apple holdings totaled 122.2 million bushels, a 16 percent increase from the same time last year, according to the December 2014 edition of the U.S. Apple Association’s Market News.

“Processing holdings totaled 44.6 million bushels, 3 percent above last year on Dec. 1,” said Mark W. Seetin, director, regulatory and industry affairs for the U.S. Apple Association. “The total number of apples in storage on Dec. 1 was 166.8 million bushels, 12 percent above last December’s total.”P1040068-copyPink Lady apples. (Photo by Christina DiMartino)

He added that the 2014 U.S. crop looks to be one of the largest on record, with the highest quality apples harvested in several years.

“Fresh apple supplies are quite ample, and demand has been especially strong,” said Seetin. “The December Market News reports that apples are moving to the marketplace at a record pace as of early December.”

USApple’s overview of the industry reports that the U.S. has approximately 7,500 apple producers who grow nearly 200 varieties of apples on approximately 328,000 acres.

The 2013 crop estimate, at 248.6 million bushels, was the 10th-largest apple crop since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping statistics on commercial apple production. The total farm-gate revenue, or wholesale value, of the U.S. apple crop is more than $2.7 billion each year.

Excitement is quickly and strongly brewing in other USApple news as well. In a Dec. 5 press release titled “Apple industry unites to increase sales,” Suzanne Wolter, chair of USApple’s consumer health education and public relations committee, said that during the 2014 winter season, U.S. Apple Association and participating members were working to support apple sales by conducting joint retail communications and consumer education programs that share the same themes with their respective audiences at the same time.

“There is great opportunity here for us to deepen the impact we make with media and consumers alike by joining efforts,” said Wolter. “Right now we have not only the right team to implement these types of programs, but also the industry enthusiasm and support to make them a success.”

From Dec. 1 through early spring, USApple and select members are holding monthly public relations and social media outreach initiatives to reach online fans and media. The efforts are aimed at attracting greater consumer attention with consistent and timely messages and images.

“Consumer news media and social media are increasingly busy, cluttered places to connect with consumers, particularly during the holiday season,” Wendy Brannen, director of consumer health and public relations for USApple, stated in the release. “By conducting joint communications campaigns in which much of the apple industry, including producers, processors and retailers, are presenting the same content at the same time, we’re better able to break through to consumers with important, helpful messages that will ideally translate to increased apple sales.”

The December program focused on encouraging consumers to “share the health” during the holiday season with do-it-yourself apple gifts, including homemade gift baskets, butters and jams, with apples as the healthy, accessible and affordable center ingredient. Members will be sharing similar posts and professionally styled photography on their social and digital channels and pitching consistent messages and materials to their respective target consumer media.

“USApple’s offer of a social media themed toolbox that individuals can use and to adapt to their own use will help us to reach our goal of seeing between 15 and 30 social media sites all post very similar themes,” added Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association in Fishers, NY, which is participating in the campaign. “If we reach that goal it will create a ground swell of activity.”

“It’s an awesome tool,” he continued. “The New York Apple Association has posted a video on our website, nyapplecountry.com, and on Facebook at facebook.com/nyapples.”

On Dec. 11, Julia Stewart, spokesperson for NYAA added, “Our Facebook post of our video showing consumers how to assemble simple apple gift baskets has so far garnered more than 800 likes and reached over 110K, and still counting. Those are great numbers for a group our size.”

The plan for future campaigns is to focus on the benefits of resolving to eat two apples a day in January, and promoting apples’ heart health research during American Heart Month in February.