“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.” 

This year is the 20th anniversary of OrganicEye’s founder and executive director, Mark Kastel’s, career shift to doing corporate and governmental watchdog work in defense of the organic movement. 

He and his team’s most recent investigation spotlights the organic certification system, with particular focus on certifiers granting USDA organic certification to industrial-scale livestock operations (also known as CAFOs) and hydroponic (soilless) growing facilities — practices that sidestep organic standards and economically disadvantage family-scale farmers. The first subject of OrganicEye’s scrutiny was California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which led to the filing of a formal legal complaint against the certifier and a request that the USDA Office of Inspector General investigate the National Organic Program. 

OrganicEye’s response to posts made by CCOF’s CEO, attorney Kelly Damewood, can be found below. But first, a brief recap.

CCOF, the largest certifier in the United States, has been targeted by OrganicEye for approving numerous industrial-scale hydroponic (soilless) production facilities, like the international berry giant, Driscoll’s, despite the requirement for soil stewardship clearly stated in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) passed by Congress in 1990. CCOF also certifies numerous dubious factory livestock operations (CAFOs). Additionally, OrganicEye’s research has exposed the potential conflicts of interest created by the generous donations CCOF receives (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars) from the agribusinesses they are hired to certify.

Federal regulations governing organic certifiers seem to be quite clear:

7 USC 6515: Any certifying agent shall not: 

… (2) accept payment, gifts, or favors of any kind from the business inspected other than prescribed fees 

The following is Mark Kastel’s point-by-point response to Ms. Damewood’s attempted damage control blog post following OrganicEye’s November 2023 outreach to CCOF’s clients:

Damewood: A concerning fundraising letter was sent to our clients by Mark Kastel under the name of “The Organic Eye.” 

Kastel: The correct name of the organization is “OrganicEye.” We are a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) research and education public charity, dedicated to protecting the organic label, and have been operating as an organic watchdog organization since 2019.

Damewood: Mark Kastel has a reputation for harassment and bullying. 

Kastel: Powerful interests that have betrayed organic stakeholders might find our governmental and corporate watchdog work to be uncomfortable.

Damewood: Despite his rhetoric of shaming companies as sell outs, Mark Kastel seems to target companies that do not donate to his own organization. 

Kastel: To date, OrganicEye has never done a fundraising appeal targeting businesses. While that may change in the future, we would consider funding only from the most ethical companies involved in the organic movement (and I’m happy to say there are many). Our largest current commercial sponsor is a member-owned food cooperative.

Damewood: He ends the letter asking you to send him money.

Kastel: The comprehensive package mailed to the farmer-members of CCOF, encouraging them to compare other more ethical certifier options, included two sentences asking them to support our work if they shared our concerns. Between the cost of the mailing and the investment of staff-time in doing the months-long comprehensive investigative work our report entailed, this was far from any kind of profit-making venture. 

Unlike CCOF, we receive no funding from the USDA and corporate agribusiness. Our primary support comes from farmers, their customers, and a few nonprofit foundations who believe in our work, and we are humbled that so many organic stakeholders are willing to financially back this mission.

Damewood: While we hate to take up more of your time with the silly accusations made in the letter, we are also firm believers in transparency. 

Kastel: We don’t consider the economic damage being done to family-scale organic farms by the certification of livestock factories and hydroponic operations — or the potential conflicts of interest detailed in our letter — to be “silly.”

Damewood: Here are clarifications:

CCOF is partnering with the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

CCOF is an OTA member. CCOF is also a member of the National Organic Coalition (NOC), Organic Farmers Association (OFA), and others working to advance organic agriculture. We also collaborate with grassroots organizations and sponsor gatherings such as the annual EcoFarm Conference.

Kastel: Unlike the Organic Trade Association — which, in many instances, lobbies against the interest of family-scale farmers — none of the other organizations cited are corporate lobby groups. Therefore, the propriety of those memberships is not under scrutiny and mention of them appears to be a smokescreen.

It is also worth noting that, according to the National Organic Coalition (NOC) website, CCOF is not a member: https://www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/member-organizations

Damewood: CCOF certifies hydroponic operations.

CCOF certifies hydroponic operations that comply with the USDA National Organic Program requirements. The USDA National Organic Program has allowed the certification of hydroponic since its inception. CCOF continues to call for a separate label for these operations. However, we cannot require separate labeling without an explicit USDA National Organic Program label.

Kastel: CCOF collaborated with the USDA in allowing hydroponics to carry the organic label. Many learned participants in the organic movement read the organic statute and interpret hydroponics as being illegal.

Furthermore, despite their claim of adherence, there are no “USDA National Organic Program regulatory requirements” specifically outlined for hydroponics. None have been published, despite requests by the industry itself. It’s a free-for-all.

Damewood: CCOF certifies CAFOs.

We certify some operations that have herds or flocks over 1,000. Organic regulations mandate outdoor access and daily grazing throughout the grazing season for all ruminant animals. Some regions have ample moisture to support year-round grazing. Other regions may be impacted by factors like drought. CCOF conducts rigorous feed and pasture audits. We were the first certifier to conduct unannounced livestock inspections and have been recognized for our rigorous feed audit inspections that exceed other certifier practices. You can learn more about our rigorous livestock inspections by reading these past updates: https://www.ccof.org/article/ccofs-livestock-compliance-initiatives-2021-review and https://www.ccof.org/article/ccof-launches-innovative-pasture-compliance-and-feed-audit-inspection-program 

Kastel: CCOF certifies livestock factories — housing many thousands of head of dairy animals (and tens of thousands of chickens) in environments that make true organic management virtually impossible — as “organic.” Alleged violations of the organic standards at some of these CCOF operations have been documented and legal complaints have been filed. Unfortunately, the USDA all too often delegates investigations to the certifiers, such as CCOF, despite the potential conflicts.

Damewood: CCOF revenue is $27M a year.

Yes, and we are unsure why this is an issue. We are a mid-size nonprofit organization. We certify over 4,340 operations of various scales. The CCOF Foundation raises funds from individuals, businesses, family foundations, and government contracts to support organic producers, especially organic producers experiencing hardship. We are very open about our financials and publish annual reports detailing income streams and expense categories. We are proud of our financial accountability and transparency.

Kastel: “Mid-size” is somewhat subjective. The operation might be mid-size if they were being compared to large nonprofits like the American Heart Association or Greenpeace. In terms of the organic movement, CCOF is likely the largest NGO in the country.

Our issue is not with the amount of revenue they generate. What is under scrutiny, and now the subject of a formal legal complaint, are the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from a number of their largest agribusiness clients — over and above the large fees they pay for certification itself. These extra contributions from agribusiness clients are prohibited because they violate OFPA conflict of interest statutes. For example, pursuant to a very clear and direct OFPA statute (7 U.S.C. § 6515(g)), CCOF cannot “accept payment, gifts, or favors of any kind from the business inspected other than prescribed fees.” Yet, that is exactly what our research suggests CCOF is doing.

Damewood: CCOF has $16M in assets and investments.

We believe this may be referring to information from one of our regular annual audits. But it is an extremely strange and out of context piece of information to highlight. CCOF follows nonprofit best practice in maintaining a 3-month operating reserve, which is conservatively invested. Like any healthy company, CCOF also has assets like equipment, website and database, accounts receivable, cash, prepaid expenses, etc. We are audited annually, and we are proud of our financial accountability to our members. We are a 50-year-old nonprofit and plan to be around for many more years to come.

Kastel: Three months of revenue and reserve would be approximately $6.75 million. CCOF is sitting on a massive war chest of funds they have raised from hard-working farmers to whom they continue to appeal for additional contributions.

Damewood: Half the CCOF Board is dominated by agribusiness.

No. Our board members are elected by CCOF members. Our board represents the diversity in scales and types of operations that make up the organic community. Our board has several small farmers, a few mid-size family farmers, and a few representatives from larger operations that were also among the original organic farms like Lundberg Family Farms and Capay Organic. In fact, CCOF’s Board of Directors is so un-corporate/un-agribusiness that the allegations are laughable. Learn more about our board at https://www.ccof.org/page/board-committees.

Kastel: Please refer to our analysis with background on the large percentage of their board represented by multimillion dollar agribusiness enterprises, including one with over $1 billion of annual revenue.

Damewood: The letter sent by the Organic Eye is a fundraising letter. The allegations attempt to solicit donations by building fear about the size of operations. We are always happy to talk about the structure of our organization and the integrity of our certification programs. Please reach out to memberservices@ccof.org if you would like more information.

Kastel: It has always been our contention that the organic law and regulations are “scale-neutral.” However, if judiciously enforced by the USDA and certifiers, they would be “scale-limiting.”

Our concerns are not just about operation size but rather about maintaining both the integrity of the organic standards and the economic viability of the family-scale farms that are being competitively damaged and driven out of business by mammoth CAFOs and hydroponic operations such as those certified by CCOF. 

Despite the spin attempting to frame our outreach as merely “fundraising” (an age-old trope against nonprofits that corporate agribusinesses oppose), the purpose of our letter was informational and contained the results of the investment of many months of intense research by OrganicEye policy staff and our legal team. 

We were happy that OrganicEye members were willing to underwrite this outreach (which was never intended to break even, let alone profit our organization), and ended the letter by inviting the recipients to join us in our efforts and to help offset the costs of the mailing if they supported the work of holding certifiers, working as agents of the USDA, accountable. 

Additional false statements and allegations have been made by CCOF since our research was released. Their February 7, 2024, blog post claims that OrganicEye wants to: 

  • Remove producer governance and representation 
  • End the CCOF Foundation grant programs 
  • Disenfranchise certifiers from the communities they serve 
  • Remove resources from organic producers
  • Undermine CCOF’s farmers and producers

OrganicEye is dedicated to protecting the livelihoods of family-scale organic farmers and working to ensure economic justice for their invaluable work. CCOF certifies organically-questionable industrial-scale livestock and hydroponic operations which put family-scale farms at an economic disadvantage. Records indicate they also accept large donations from the very operations that benefit most from those practices, such as Grimmway Farms (Cal-Organic and BunnyLov) with 60,000 acres of production certified by CCOF. 

While many of the resources they provide are laudable, we think it is worth investigating just whose interests are being represented when portions of their revenue stream might be described as dirty money

While CCOF and the national lobby group they financially support, the Organic Trade Association, might be enthusiastic about the trajectory of the organic industry, with its growing dependence on factory farms and imports, hundreds of family-scale organic farmers in the United States have lost their livelihoods (as well as thousands of conventional farms that could have been saved if they weren’t shut out of the organic market).

Many legacy certifiers read the law governing organics and refuse to certify hydroponic (soilless) produce production and livestock factories, whereas others, such as CCOF, are more than happy to financially benefit from the industrialization of organic farming. 

Our investigation examined the sources of CCOF’s revenue, as well as documented conflicts of interest, in trying to explain the juxtaposition between the established reputations of some certifiers and their policies that are economically injuring family-scale organic farmers.

Official comments from CCOF seem to be designed to create a smokescreen and divert attention from the primary issue of “regulatory capture” — facilitated by an unholy alliance between corporate agribusiness, certain certifiers, and the USDA — which has resulted in the vast preponderance of growth in the organic sector flowing to corporate investors at the expense of hard-working family farmers.

For more information, please go to: https://organiceye.org/high-integrity-certifiers-and-bad-actors/. We welcome questions or comments from organic industry stakeholders. As with the balance of our investigative work, any such dialogue will be held in strict confidence.

CCOF is welcome to their own opinions.
However, the organization is not welcome to their own facts.

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