A trust agreement finalized this month between the Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association and the state Department of Agriculture allows Washington certified organic products to maintain access to the Japanese market.

The agreement brings Washington-certified organic products into compliance with revisions to Japanese Agricultural Standards for labeling organic food products made last year by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). All organic products now are required to be certified by a "recognized certification organization" that must be incorporated in Japan and comply with Japanese organic regulations. It is the first time the government has regulated organic labels in the Japanese marketplace.

The new regulations, which go into effect for imported products April 1, 2001, require food products certified organic by the state Department of Agriculture or other U.S.-based certifiers to obtain additional certification by a recognized certification organization for products to be sold in Japan.

The state Department of Agriculture and Gov. Locke's trade representative worked hard to convince Japanese officials to accept state organic certification. The officials declined on the basis that such an agreement should be between Japan and the U.S. This was a significant roadblock since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet established national organic standards.

Not to be defeated, the state Department of Agriculture put together the trust agreement with the Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association, the largest organic association in Japan and a certification organization recognized by MAFF (Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). Under the terms of the agreement, the association will approve the organic certification conducted by the state Department of Agriculture instead of requiring Japanese inspectors to conduct additional inspections. This will allow Washington-certified organic products to be accepted under the Japanese government seal.

"We are extremely pleased to have this agreement. It allows us to avoid potential discrimination against imported products and the increased cost of obtaining duplicate certification," said Bill Dallas, an international trade specialist at Department of Agriculture. "Some Japanese importers and supermarket chains had already begun canceling orders due to the uncertainty and increased cost of implementing the new standards."

It was not an easy feat. In April, the state Department of Agriculture sponsored a visit by two Japanese officials to several Washington exporters of organic food products. "The visit paved the way for a resolution. It created a new understanding of the size and scope of Washington's organic industry and the competence of the organic certification process," said Dallas.

A breakthrough occurred in June when Scott Hitchman, the state Department of Agriculture's Japan Trade Director, organized and flew in for a meeting in Olympia. The meeting included a San Francisco representative of Jusco -- Japan's third largest supermarket chain, an organic inspector from the Japan Organic and Natural Foods Association, and Department of Agriculture. Jusco is the largest importer of organic foods in Japan, holding about 20 percent of market share. It has contracted with the association as their agent for Japanese government certification. The trust agreement between the association and Department of Agriculture was developed at the meeting.

Organic foods are an important export commodity. In 1998, the Washington organic industry produced about $100 million worth of certified organic products; an estimated $12 million to $15 million of that was exported to Japan.