Interview with Jody Biergiel, N06 AFE, Director of Handler Certification, CCOF Certification Services by Ashley Carter

Jody at the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa

What does CCOF Certification Services do and what is your role at the organization?

CCOF certifies farms and food processors to the USDA National Organic Standard. CCOF was founded in 1973 by farmers, and at the time they had their own standards. The State of California then developed their own standards that CCOF certified to, which were superseded by the Federal standards we have today.

The staff members at CCOF review product formulas, labels, and farming plans – called an Organic System Plan – for compliance with the USDA National Organic Program regulations. This involves reviewing an application submitted by farmers and food processors – called “Handlers” in the regulation – which may include ingredient supplier organic certificates, and lists of materials they wish to use in farming such as allowed soil amendments or in handling, such as baking soda.

I spend my days answering technical questions about how to interpret the regulation, spot-checking compliance decisions made by reviewers, and running around to meetings! CCOF takes customer service very seriously, so I also track our response time to client requests and monitor our workload.

How complex is the process of becoming certified as an organic farm or handler?

 The process is three steps:

1) Apply for certification with a certification agency. CCOF is one of many in the country all certifying to the same regulation – the USDA NOP. CCOF is the oldest and largest. The certification agency reviews your application for the ability to comply with the regulations.

2) Undergo an inspection, to verify that what you wrote in your application is what you are doing on site.

3) The Inspection Report is then reviewed and a certification decision is made by the review specialists here in the office. If you comply with the regulation, you are certified! Each year organic operations must undergo an inspection and have compliance re-verified.

The complexity is commensurate with the complexity of the farm or handling operation. If there are multiple sites, multiple crops or products, the certification review may take longer and cost more.

Any crazy experiences from your work in the field?

 A common misperception is that certifiers work in the field. Certifiers do visit clients annually at least, but the majority of our work is in the office.  Inspectors are the eyes and ears of certifiers; we have a corps of inspectors that enjoy the lifestyle on the road, but I cannot recommend it for just anyone. Anyone interested in being an organic inspector should take the International Organic Inspectors Association trainings, which occur several times a year. This week long course is just what a certifier wants to see on your resume.

Being a certifier is a fun job, and we get to interact with a lot of personalities. Farmers and business owners are by definition mavericks.

How have you seen the field of organics change recently?  And have GMO foods had an impact on organic farming?

Organic farming is the fastest growing sector of the food industry. We are certainly having our growing pains. There is debate about whether rapid growth is best for the industry and consumers. CCOF’s rallying cry is “More acres in organic!” and growth means, even if it is products like organic cookies and ice cream, that somewhere another acre of wheat or sugar cane, or another herd of cows or house of chickens was certified organic. Organic production is better for the environment and agriculture workers, lowers consumer exposure to synthetic pesticides, and is the only sure way to avoid GMOs at this time.

Regarding GMOs, this technology is not well understood, and should be trialed more before planted in farm communities. At the very least foods that contain GMO ingredients should be labeled, but I worry more about the impact at the farm level. GMO contamination of organic crops is a real threat. If an organic crop is found to have been contaminated, that farmer loses their ability to sell the crop as organic. This has huge financial implications for organic farmers.

Has public opinion towards organic foods changed? 

 Over the years consumers have been organic’s biggest fans, and its harshest critics. The Federal organic standard would not exist without consumers demanding it. Today consumers demand that organic regulations meet their expectation of organic food. Some consumers feel that organic food should not have any processing aids in it, for example. This is where growth becomes a controversy, because processing aids are necessary for some kinds of food to be produced organically.

Only a very short list of processing aids are allowed in organic food. Organic food cannot be made with nitrites, nitrates, artificial flavors or colors. The kinds of processing aids that are allowed are those like yeast and pectin, which have a function in the food – no organic wine or jam might be on the shelves if we didn’t allow some processing aids.

How do you see your career changing in response to these changes? 

The job of the certifier is becoming increasingly technical. An understanding of the flavoring and packaging industry, for example, is becoming necessary. Six years ago when I began, a food policy background and a passion for organic, as well as analytical and writing skills made a good certifier. Now it’s important to also have someone on staff with a food science background. Product review is becoming more specialized.

Could you tell me a bit about your Friedman experience?

When I think about my time at Friedman, I think about the people. Kathleen Merrigan was my advisor, and she provided wisdom when I needed to pick a summer internship between my two years at Friedman and a job after I graduated. Upon her suggestion, I interned at Organic Valley in Wisconsin, a state I had never been to, and I met my future husband there! We moved to California for my job at CCOF after I graduated. Kathleen also advised me to take the job with CCOF. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude.

I also struck gold with my classmates at Friedman. The class of 2006 was 14 people, and we had the best potlucks in the school. I still cook Elanor Starmer’s butternut squash pasta, and Colleen Matts made me a galette from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I still think about.

How has Friedman helped you in your travels through the world of nutrition, agriculture, organics, and anywhere else you’ve been?

My two years at Friedman set me on my career path. When I was looking for a graduate program after my environmental studies undergraduate degree, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I simply typed my three favorite things at the time into Google: Agriculture, Food, the Environment. Well you can guess which prestigious program popped up! I applied only to the AFE program and dove into the study of food policy. Friedman gave me context for how we make our daily food decisions. I like to say I had to get a master’s degree to go grocery shopping!

What advice do you have for Friedman students who are interested in organic farming and organic foods and might be looking to go into a career in this area? 

There was so much I didn’t know about what I wanted to do and how to find a good organization to work for. I suggest reaching out to professionals in the industry to get the lay of the land.  It matters so much more who you work for and with than where you work. Someone who can offer you a professional experience and who values your career development will give you a much more fulfilling experience than being one of many interns rotating through a large organization. Look for a company where you will have some access to the top decision makers, they are who you want to learn from.

I also suggest attending a National Organic Standards Board meeting. These meetings are twice a year. The Board advises the USDA NOP, and hears comments from the organic community on proposed updates and changes to the Regulation. You can see a lot of the influential community members there, and learn a lot of about hot topics in the organic industry.

Do you always eat organic?  Did you before working for CCOF?

In Boston, organic food was not as available as in other parts of the country, and 6 years ago it was not as available anywhere as it is now. Before working at CCOF I was a student and a vegetarian and bought produce from the farmer’s market and bought organic when it was available. In my experience, organic food is not necessarily too expensive for students, especially if you are a vegetarian. Beans and rice and greens are pretty inexpensive!

Now I always eat organic, when I have control over the ingredients. I also choose restaurants that talk about where their ingredients come from. Santa Cruz is lucky to have many farm-to-table restaurants, and because CCOF certifies so many of them, I know by farm name if I am getting an organic meal. I have met some of the animals I later saw on a menu. Call us Portlandia South!

If someone is just learning about organic food, any substitute of an organic product for a nonorganic product is a step in the right direction and reduces your exposure to synthetic materials. I also find it compelling to think about the people growing and harvesting my food. Their health is impacted by the food I buy.

I’m sure you have comments on the recent Stanford study that was released saying that organic food is no healthier than nonorganic food. 

*** For Jody’s thoughts on the study, please see Organics: Bang for your Buck? by Amy Elvidge discusses the Stanford meta-analysis, the media hype it’s created, and whether you should still buy organic.

Ashley Carter is a second year Nutrition Communication student at the Friedman School.  She is also completing her DPD at Simmons College in order to become a Registered Dietitian.  She grew up by an organic dairy farm in Vermont where she and her family would get fresh milk every day! 

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