Saskatchewan food company sues USDA: Possible crack-down on imported organic corn
Sunrise Foods International Inc., based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was blocked in its effort to off-load cracked corn at Stockton, Calif., on March 6. A grain trader for the company said the company would not be interested in commenting on the suit.
The shipment reportedly was blocked for 50 days and eventually departed for parts unknown. The ship included corn from Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia, which U.S. organic promoters say are not approved for shipping corn to the U.S. The ship was loaded in Turkey, which is on a European list for suspect organic shipments.
Sunrise Foods is represented in the suit by Holland & Knight LLP of Los Angeles. The company sources cereal grains, feed grains, oilseed and pulses and delivers to the U.S. and worldwide.
Jacob Neufeld, chief executive officer for Sunrise Foods, says the company was established in 1997 by Saskatchewan organic farmers and others and declines to say who owns it today.
The company regularly imports "organic cracked corn, a feed product" to the U.S., primarily for poultry and dairy feed, according to the suit. It accesses the product through Tiryaki Agro Food Industry and Trade Inc. and its "Diasub" organic subsidiary. Diasub coats it with organic sunflower seed oil to prevent dust, extend storage life and prevent insect contamination.
The lawsuit says the company had imported 16 cargo holds of the products in the six months before the suit and had brought shipments without problems through ports in Delaware, North Carolina, Louisiana and California. Neufeld tells Forum News Service that the company was complying with Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service rules, which allow grain to be shipped in if it meets processing standards.
A Wisconsin-based organic grain marketing group, the Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), which has clients in Minnesota and the Dakotas, had reported suspect shipments and welcomed the federal action as a sign of demanding stricter enforcement to combat the import of fake or poorly documented organic imports. Neufeld says there is no question that the corn in the shipment was from organic production.
USDA vs USDA?
Sunrise is suing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, as well as several agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the USDA's APHIS and its National Organic Program.
James Bobbe, director of OFARM, says the case may be evidence that federal officials are becoming more concerned about shipments from certain countries.
"We will see if CBP can stand up to this," Bobbe said.
OFARM on Feb. 21 filed a complaint on two ships — the "Mountpark," and the "Easter Hope," based on their Turkish port of origin. Bobbe says OFARM had received information from an industry source that Mountpark was laden with grain from countries that are not approved for shipping corn to the U.S. (The Easter Hope had been mislabeled, was from Argentina and was allowed to off-load wheat for feed purposes.)
OFARM notified the National Organic Program of the countries of origin on the corn, which may have triggered the Customs and Border Patrol action on the Mountpark shipment, Bobbe said. The CBP works with the APHIS to prevent harmful plant and animal pests and diseases from entering the U.S.
The CBP and APHIS prevent corn from coming into the U.S. unless it at least 51 percent "cracked," on grounds that whole corn could harbor certain diseases.
According to Sunrise, the Mountpark arrived at the Port of San Francisco about Feb. 26, was tested Feb. 28 and was cleared for unloading for livestock feed manufacturing. On March 7, the ship headed for the Port of Stockton, Calif. Sunrise Foods says the CBP received "information regarding the country of origin" from "another government agency" and "did not make any efforts to inquire or verify any information regarding the cargo directly with Sunrise." On March 12, the CBP notified Sunrise by email that the shipments were rejected.
CBP and APHIS ordered Sunrise Foods to "re-export or destroy" the shipment within 24 hours. The corn did not meet the agencies' definition of cracked corn. A CBP agriculture specialist initially suggested the "possibility of treating the corn at an unload facility at Stockton, known as "Penny-Newman," but the agency later changed its mind.
Sunrise says its shipments should have been allowed because they were "produced or processed in Turkey," and not Russia, Kazakhstan or Moldova. They say the CBP was only required to inspect for "pests and pathogens" and required an "impossible standard" for cracking the corn. He says the rules should allow the cracked corn into the U.S., even if it was harvested in a country from which whole grain corn shipments are not allowed.
Sunrise lawyers say the company tried in vain to get CBP, APHIS and USDA to "sample test and inspect" the cracked corn as they "are required to do, they refused to do so."
Sunrise officials met with APHIS officials daily from March 20 to March 27.
Bobbe say the ship left the area after 50 days, anchored 1.5 miles offshore and reportedly left for Panama. Sunrise said the ship was incurring $23,500 in losses daily and risking product deterioration. Re-exporting to Turkey or destroying the shipment "as suggested by Defendants," are "not viable options" and could cost "over several million dollars in losses," the company said in its suit. The company said it would cause "irreparable harm" to Sunrise business relationships.