Handling Organic Fruit
The market for organic food products has been growing and will continue to expand. Expanding markets provide opportunities for growers and packers of organic fruit. Organic fruit handling standards maintain the identity and integrity of organic fruit. Fruit packers will need to implement organic fruit handling procedures to gain access to domestic and export markets for organic food.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) has certified organic farms since 1988. The WSDA Organic Food Program's mission is to protect consumers and support the development of the organic food industry by ensuring the integrity of organic food products. The Organic Food Program (OFP) establishes organic standards and certifies organic producers, processors and handlers. The OFP also provides technical information about organic food production and assists in the development of markets for the organic food industry.
Growth in Organic Farming
In 1988, the first year of the WSDA Organic Food Program, there were 63 certified organic farms producing 2.5 million dollars worth of organic food. In 1997, WSDA certified 295 farms, 73 processors and 54 handlers of organic food. These 295 farms produced over 60 million dollars of organic food including 3.6 million dollars of organic apples and pears exported to the European Community. In terms of number of farms, acreage and value of production, the organic food industry is growing at a rate of 20 to 30% per year (see Figure 1).
According to the Hartman Report (1997) the market for organic food products will continue to expand. The majority of Americans will preferentially buy organic and other eco-labeled food products as long as the core purchase criteria of price, taste, quality, convenience and availability are met. A significant segment of American consumers are also willing to pay a premium for organic food products. Natural food superstores are the fastest growing segment of the retail food industry and will provide additional market outlets for organic foods.
Organic Crop Production Standards
In general, organic food is food that is grown without the use of synthetic chemicals. Natural fertilizers such as manure, compost, bone meal, and rock minerals are used for maintaining soil fertility. Natural insecticides and selective synthetic insecticides including Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), rotenone, pyrethrum, insecticidal soaps, pheromones and dormant oils are used for insect pest management. Weeds are controlled by mechanical methods, rather than through the use of herbicides. Approved disease control materials include sulfur and copper hydroxide. Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited from use for at least three years prior to harvest.
Handling Organic Food
The two primary concerns in handling organic fruit are maintaining the identity of organic fruit and preventing contamination with post-harvest chemicals. Organic fruit is identical in appearance to non-organic fruit. Bin tags, labels, scale tickets, and lot control documents must clearly identify the fruit as organic. Clear and consistent labeling will preclude inadvertent misidentification or commingling by employees. Handlers of organic fruit must demonstrate that they have procedures in place to maintain the identity and segregation of organic fruit at all times.
Organic fruit must be packed only after the dump tanks and lines have been cleaned. Sodium hypochlorite not to exceed 0.2% may be used in dump tanks. Biodegradable soaps may also be used in the dump tank; detergents are not allowed. Naturally derived citric and acetic acid may be used to remove calcium deposits. Waxes are generally not used, though natural waxes are allowed on organic fruit. Irradiation, diphenylamine(DPA), thiabendazadole (TBZ), and ethoxyquin are not allowed.
Approved flotation aids include soda ash, sodium silicate and sodium lignansulfonate. Non-treated tissue wrap is the only tissue wrap approved for organic fruit. The Eco-Science mold inhibiting products Bio-Save10TM and Bio-Save 11TM are approved materials for use on organic fruit.
Organic fruit may be stored in controlled atmosphere storage, but may not be stored with DPA treated fruit.Handlers of organic food must provide adequate separation of organic food products from non-organic food products to ensure that no commingling or misidentification occurs. Materials and chemicals used within the handler's facility must not contaminate the organic food products.
Handlers of organic fruit must maintain organic producer certificates for the organic fruit received. Organic food certificates are issued by WSDA to certified organic food producers in Washington state. Organic fruit from outside the state the fruit must be certified by an organic certification agency officially recognized by WSDA as meeting Washington state organic standards. Copies of organic food certificates must be obtained by organic fruit packers for all organic fruit received.
Records must be maintained to track the organic food product from receiving through shipping. All records must identify organic product and be retained for two years.
Certified organic means that an independent, third-party has verified that all the requirements of organic crop production, processing and handling have been met. Washington State law requires that any person who sells, offers for sale or handles an organic agricultural product be certified. Certification is required for all handlers of organic food including distributors, marketers, brokers, and fruit packers.
To receive organic food handler certification, obtain an application from WSDA and send it to WSDA along with your application fee. Application fees are based on gross sales of organic food products. Fees range from as low as $75 for handlers with gross sales under $25,000 per year to $10,000 for handlers with sales over $10,000,000 per year. Fees represent approximately one-tenth of one percent (0.10%) of revenues from organic products. The WSDA Organic Food Program is funded entirely by application fees.
Inspections of organic fruit handlers include a review of receiving, storage, and packing procedures and a review of the record-keeping trail of the organic products. Samples of organic fruit are collected periodically to check for pesticide residues.
In 1992, Diphenylamine (DPA) residues were detected on samples of organic fruit. At that time, it was determined that DPA was volatizing from treated fruit in controlled atmosphere (CA) storage and contaminating organic fruit. Standards were adopted to prohibit organic fruit from being stored with DPA treated fruit.
Over the past year DPA residues have again been detected on organic fruit from CA storage. The residues detected have been between 0.10 ppm and 0.65 ppm. The EPA tolerance level for DPA is 10 ppm. Organic standards prohibit organic products from being sold if they contain residues above 5 percent of the EPA tolerance level, which for DPA would be 0.5 ppm. Organic fruit with DPA residues below 0.5 ppm may be sold as organic, but many organic buyers will not purchase organic fruit with DPA residues. This is especially true for baby food companies and export markets.
There are some reports that DPA occurs naturally in apples. Bramlage, Ju and Potter (1994) reported that DPA occurs naturally in apples at levels below 0.010 ppm. These residue levels are significantly lower than those detected in our samples and are below the WSDA's pesticide labs limit of detection. The WSDA pesticide lab has a DPA minimum detection limit of 0.010 ppm. DPA residues have not been detected by WSDA's pesticide lab from fruit collected from the orchard or regular storage.
The presence of DPA residue is of concern because it indicates that the current procedures for handling organic fruit are not sufficient to prevent contamination. More research is needed to determine the source of these DPA residues and to develop procedures for preventing organic fruit from being contaminated. Possible sources of the DPA residues include: volatization from the walls in CA storage, CA rooms storing organic fruit sharing a common air supply with CA rooms storing DPA treated fruit, DPA residues on the bins at harvest time from the previous year, and DPA contaminating organic fruit on the packing line.
USDA's National Organic Program Proposal
Washington State's organic food standards would be severely weakened by USDA's December, 1997, National Organic Program proposal. The proposal would allow many materials currently prohibited from use in organic farming, such as the pesticide avermectin, toxins derived from genetically engineered bacteria, inert ingredients such as benzene, formaldehyde and xylene; and fertilizers such as cement kiln waste and biosolids. The proposed national standards could shake consumer confidence in organic foods and disrupt expanding export markets.
The federal proposal would also impose additional fees raising organic certification fees by 35%. Under the proposed USDA National Organic Program handlers of organic fruit would pay an additional $500 per year to USDA. Many small organic farms and processors may choose to stop producing and selling organic food products due to the added costs of certification.
WSDA has submitted preliminary comments to USDA on how the proposal would weaken state standards, impose an unfair burden on small farms and businesses, provide loopholes for many handlers of organic food, include numerous unenforceable sections, and would disrupt export markets.
Bramlage, W.J., Z. Ju and T.L. Potter. 1994. Is Diphenylamine a Natural Compound in Apples and Pears? Fruit Notes.
Hartman, H. 1997. The Hartman Report. Food and the Environment: A Consumer's Perspective.
Washington State Department of Agriculture,
Organic Food Program,
PO Box 42560, Olympia, WA 98504-2560
14th Annual Postharvest Conference, Yakima, Washington
March 10-11, 1998