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To be or not to be: the politics of organic certification

Becoming a Certified Organic producer and supplier is a complicated process. As a general consumer, many of us are not aware of the implications and responsibilities behind an organic certification. Recently, there have been many debates about whether or not the certification is worth the cost and effort. Small family farms can have a tough time affording certification, while large organic farm companies might focus on their bottom line more than their responsibilities as organic producers.

Genuine, committed men and women, who truly love what they do, operate our farms. Our eggs are processed by hand every week, providing a quality control that is unbeatable. (As farms across the country become more industrialized, they will often streamline the collection and processing process for a higher profit margin). Large grocery buyers almost always prefer these types of producers because they can offer more volume at lower prices. Profit is the top priority for many of these types of companies. From our perspective, their industrial processes not only sacrifice quality, but also the credibility of the company. An organic certification requires certain non-negotiable standards, but larger producers can find ways to bend these rules or even break them to generate more profit. In their mind, a hen that is in a cage most of the day and is let out for one hour can still qualify for “cage-free”.

Language also plays a massive role in the label and marketing game. Descriptions like cage-free, all-natural, and organic often capitalize on common associations with these words that have nothing to do with the actual conditions on a farm. For example, “natural” in no way means technically “organic”. The purpose is to let the consumer fill in the blank as to what “natural” actually means. To a normal consumer it brings about images of healthy green fields, lots of room for the birds to move and no pesticides. To commercial producers it could just mean that the birds have a tiny, concrete porch where a few at a time can soak up some sun. There is a lot of room to manipulate the word “natural”, where as “organic” has stricter conditions under which it can be used.

Just being able to use the word “organic” is not cheap. The average cost of a USDA certification is about $3,000 a year for small farms, and can go all the way to $10,000+ depending on size and type of products. A common scenario: a family farm sells their product to select in-state restaurants and grocery stores. However, they are not marked organic because they claim to a) not be able to afford it and b) do not believe it will benefit them. A farmer might see how big companies get away with bending the rules, or that customers don’t care wither way, which causes them to question the value of the certification itself. Is having the right to mark your product “organic” really worth it when the word is not being respected and your customers will happily buy non-organic food?

We have our organic certification because we believe that it helps us adhere to what we truly believe in and. Vital Farms pays a pretty penny to carry the certification. Perhaps some do not abide by its rules, but the certification holds a great deal of value to us because we respect it, and believe that customers appreciate third-party verification, to know we are doing what we say. We absolutely do not use pesticides or artificial feed, and we never will. We value bringing ethical food to the table before ever sacrificing our holistic and genuine practices.

It’s important to be informed and knowledgeable about which brands are honest in their organic labels. Research the USDA Certification and its regulations; for now, we believe it’s our best option until a stricter certification is released. If you own and operate a family farm, there are many ways to afford the seal of approval. There are shared cost collectives that allow farms to join under a common label. Express your concern for price and you can negotiate. It is worth being able to say your product is truly (and legally) organic and sustainably grown.

If there were to be a new certification for organic producers, what would you want the regulations to look like? What priorities are most important to you? Let us know!