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OTA launches voluntary checkoff after USDA nixes mandatory plan


WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a response to the USDA’s surprising move to suddenly abandon plans to launch a mandatory multiyear organic certification checkoff program this year, the Organic Trade Assoc. (OTA) announced it will establish a voluntary program designed to promote certified organic products.

After the USDA said it was abandoning its effort, “If there was ever a need for an organic checkoff (program), it is now,” said the group’s CEO, Laura Batcha.

“We are seeing organic dairy and egg sales flattening because of USDA’s failure. The OTA recognizes great demand for coordinated organic research and promotion, and the ($50 billion) organic sector is ready to work together on innovative solutions that will have key benefits for organic.”

The USDA announced in May it was terminating a proposed rule that would have established an agency-administrated national research and promotion checkoff program for certified organic products.

In a statement from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, (AMS), it explained it based its decision “on (the) lack of consensus within the industry in support for the proposed program and divergent views on how to resolve issues in implementing the proposed program.”

The USDA said it had received and reviewed more than 14,700 comments filed by organic producers and the public, including questions about the effect of organic promotion over other agricultural commodities, the fees on small producers, how to trace imported organic products and the paperwork burden forced on farmers and others to verify organic products.

The AMS said the comments were “split within the industry,” on those that supported a mandatory checkoff program.

To support the government program, the USDA projected it would raise $30 million per year through fees from some organic producers. But, the program would have exempted smaller farmers with revenues less than $250,000.

To fund its efforts, the OTA said it would launch a $1 million fundraising campaign, joined with the nonprofit group Organic Voices for each of the next two years. The OTA said the campaign would include a nationwide message drive to reduce the confusion about organic products and how products are labeled and certified.

Batcha said the organization has formed a steering committee to coordinate its voluntary plan. The committee will address governance issues by appointing two subcommittees, one on governance and an immediate programming subcommittee.

“Everyone in our industry has a stake in eliminating consumer confusion, growing the market and building the organic brand, so we’ll work collectively to ensure the future of organic,” Batcha said on behalf of the organization’s 9,500 farmers and producers.

Members of the governance subcommittee include Batcha; Kim Dietz, senior manager for Environmental, Natural and Organic Policy for the J.M Smucker Co.; Marty Mesh, an organic farmer and executive director of Florida Organic Growers; Perry Clutts, an organic dairy farmer and owner of the Pleasant View organic dairy farm in Ohio; Melissa Hughes, general counsel and chief mission officer for Organic Valley; Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic foods; Melody Meyer, president of Organic Source; and Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms of California.

The OTA said the immediate programming subcommittee will fund prototype programs designed to improve consumer awareness of organic products. These programs will invest in critical needs and serve as proven projects for investment as the voluntary program rolls out.

According to the organization, sales of organic food jumped 6.4 percent in 2017 to a record of $45.2 billion, which is 5.5 percent of the total U.S. retail food market. A Nielsen’s research report found that 88 percent of the nation’s households purchased organic food and beverages during 2017, while organic product sales jumped 9.8 percent and volume increased 11.4 percent.