TWIN FALLS, Idaho — You may never look at organic food the same again.
Organic fruit or beans may look like any other piece of fruit or any bag of beans, but it takes a lot of steps, documentation and paperwork — from farmers to haulers to distributors — for food to wear that State of Idaho Organic Certification Seal.
In 2002, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture received its accreditation as an organic certifying agency from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. For organic certification, a food producer or handler must submit an application, pay a fee based on last year's gross organic sales and undergo an on-site inspection and sometimes unannounced inspections.
On Oct. 11, agriculture investigator Kim Flynn traveled from Boise to Twin Falls to look at the organic side of Soranco Bean Products Inc. She does about 80 inspections a year across Idaho.
It usually takes Flynn two weeks after her inspection to put together her report. If all the company's organic requirements were met, it's certified as an organic handler with its certificate arriving in about six weeks. Even though only about 3 percent of Soranco Bean Products is organic, the inspection is still throughout. It lasted more than four hours with most of the inspection spent inside the office of Toni Carlton, general manager of Soranco, talking about documentation.
Every year companies that either grow or handle organic products are required to undergo an inspection. It always starts with a meeting to go over a lot of paperwork that proves they are providing organic produce, crops or meat.
The paperwork provides traceability and protects the integrity of the organic product, Flynn said.
Here, the beans are not grown by Soranco, but by a certified organic grower. From the time they arrive on a truck until they leave, they are tracked with a form and signature.
Basically, Flynn said, Soranco needs to show that organic beans do not mix with the conventional beans the company also mills and packages. When conventional beans run across the milling line there has to be a complete cleaning — which can take six to seven hours — before the organic beans can run.
There is a similar process when milling organic and non-organic beans. The 10 steps for clean-down between varieties must be initialed and dated.
The same goes for where beans are stored. And if an area needs to be fumigated for pests, documentation needs to show the organic beans were removed from the area.
"There's a lot of steps," Flynn said.
If she were investigating a ready-to-eat product like onions, she explained, the paperwork would be different and more abundant. It would include a section on just the water that is used and might include taking a sample.
The organization of all that paperwork determines how long the meeting lasts, and companies are charged by the hour.
Flynn sat across from Carlton typing information into a laptop. Also sitting in on the meeting was the company's quality assurance manager, Wayne Gause.
"What I have here is a copy of last year's inspection. You come out with zero issues, pretty impressive," Flynn said. "If there were any non-compliances or issues we would go over that, but there was not, so we'll go to section two: labeling."
There are strict guidelines for organic labels. For example, the ISDA has to be below who packed or handled it last. The USDA seal has to be bigger than the ISDA seal.
There are rules that Soranco has records for even though the rules themselves do not ask for them.
For instance, the rules state that there should not be any commingling with inorganic products during inbound and outbound transport. The rules don't state outright that the truck must be clean. But the company developed paperwork to show organic and conventional commingling does not occur.
"Documentation is documentation. I don't care if it's on a napkin," Flynn said.
The more organized the company is, the quicker the inspection goes.
Soranco keeps a lot of its own rules and documentation in clear plastic sleeves inside white binders. There's a binder on just packaging.
"How many binders do you got?" Flynn said with a laugh.
"I'm getting quite a collection," Gause said.
The organic certification program is supposed to give the consumer assurances regarding the term "organic" when it is used in the marketing and labeling of food products
"The first year we did this it was confusing," Carlton said, but she added it's about maintaining the beans' organic integrity.
According to ISDA, certification also benefits Idaho producers by facilitating the development of out-of-state and out-of-country markets for their Idaho certified organic products.
The ISDA even goes through its own inspection by the USDA.
"It was intimidating," Flynn said. The last inspection lasted a week of eight-hour days.
Organic crop inspections are usually done by Sept. 30 because producers and handlers want to qualify for the Organic Certification Cost Share Programs, which reimburse a portion of the costs of organic certification. This is first-come, first-served, Flynn said, but this year ISDA received enough money to reimburse everyone who applied before the deadline.
As the inspection at Soranco drew near its end, Flynn toured the Soranco's storage and milling sites. She stopped and talked with Mike Parks, mill operator, as the roar of beans being cleaned and sorted caused the two to stand close as he talked.
Flynn's walk-through of the storage and mills took less than an hour. Then it was back to the Soranco office to look over more files in cabinets.
When Flynn left that day she would give Carlton a receipt for all the documentation she provided — just another step in that never-ending documentation.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com