Four months after the federal government terminated the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) proposed, mandatory organic checkoff program, the trade group said Thursday it will explore setting up a voluntary checkoff program.
The OTA had spent nearly eight years developing and preparing its proposed checkoff program, which would have potentially generated more than $30 million annually to spend on research, technical services, and consumer education and promotion of the organic brand.
Many at the Washington, D.C.-based OTA were hopeful that funds collected from what it called the GRO Organic (formerly the acronym for “Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organics,” now for “Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic”) program would underwrite the type of commodity advertising campaigns that have proved successful, such as “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” and “Got Milk?”
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dumped it in May, saying it received comments that “revealed that there is a split within the industry in terms of support for the proposed program. While some comments voiced support for a collective industry program, other comments stated that industry was not aligned in backing the proposal.”
The OTA countered that the USDA’s assertion of lacking industry support for the checkoff program “is simply wrong,” and that it would “fully assess opportunities through the private sector to advance innovative solutions” for the organic sector.
Now the OTA is committing to further exploring those opportunities with its call for a voluntary checkoff program and has formed a steering committee to coordinate and lead the efforts.
The USDA currently oversees 22 national commodity checkoff programs, also known as research and promotion programs, which are typically financed by producers and handlers of a commodity via mandatory assessments charged on a per unit basis of the marketed commodity.
OTA CEO Laura Batcha told Sustainable Food News that the USDA won’t have a say in the renewed checkoff effort because it is a “private-sector initiative and companies already invest in organic promotion and research and programming. This is just a coordinated effort to further those initiatives.”
The new steering committee has established a governance subcommittee, which will open a comment period this fall for interested parties to address how to “maximize good participation” in a voluntary checkoff program.
Whether a new checkoff program will include any assessment rates to be paid voluntarily remains to be seen.
“It’s important to remember that we’re not starting with a proposal,” Batcha told SFN. “We’re starting with an opportunity for stakeholders to provide substantive input on how to best structure a voluntary program. The program will be open for people to choose whether or not they want to participate in, and those governance questions will be answered after we have the comment period and have received input from potential participants.”
Members of the governance subcommittee include: Batcha; Kim Dietz, senior manager for environmental, natural and organic policy at The J.M. Smucker Company; Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers and its organic certification arm Quality Certification Services (QCS); Perry Clutts, owner of Ohio-based Pleasantview Farm, an organic, grass-based dairy supplying the Horizon Organic milk brand; Melissa Hughes, general counsel for Organic Valley; Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield Organic; Melody Meyer, president of Source Organic; and Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms.
The new steering committee has also formed an immediate programming subcommittee to “identify programs to advance organic, and coordinate and fund those programs immediately.”
OTA said among the projects getting underway is providing funding for more organic extension agents and conducting “in-depth consumer research on the most effective ways to reinforce the organic brand,” which Batcha said results should be available by mid-2019.
In addition, OTA is partnering with Organic Voices, which was formed in 2011 to promote the benefits of organic food, on the “It’s Not Complicated” campaign, which seeks to raise $1 million a year for the next to years to fund a nationwide message drive to reduce consumer confusion about organic.
OTA said it will be unveiling more details on its voluntary checkoff plans during a series of informational meetings next week at the Expo East Natural Products Trade Show in Baltimore.