Organic Produce Is Not Always Organic

Despite stringent regulations meant to protect US consumers and the nation’s food supply, con men still show up and take advantage of loopholes in the law.

Those loopholes may be closing, and there’s at least one perpetrator who spent time behind bars wishing he hadn’t heard of “organic produce.”

Corrupt politicos have fostered relationships with the nation’s “big food” interests to serve themselves at the organic industry buffet by allowing products to be marketed openly while violating the organic criteria set in place by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The USDA has been in the inside jacket pocket of businesses and has failed to prosecute violations. Lobbyists press the bureau to “give preference” to the factory model of producing the US’s food.

The Cornucopia Institute, a food-based research group located in Wisconsin, has been fighting to bring-to-light continuing violations by the livestock industry as they manufacture dairy products and meat.

Federally mandated organic criteria demand that livestock living conditions be structured so as to support the well-being and expected behavior of animals. This means chicks and cows are permitted to have year-round access to meadows for feeding, shade, sunlight and fresh water. The animals must also live in a free-range — unconfined — environment.

Horizon, a popular subsidiary owned by Dean Foods, is one example of a company repeatedly caught violating the federal standards by reducing access to free-range life.

Dean Foods, which purchased Horizon in 2004, peeled away the layer of respectability Horizon once enjoyed. Horizon’s problems began when Dean Foods took over ownership. Dean Foods’ sales totaled over $9 billion in 2014, making it the largest dairy producer in the country.

Cornucopia’s suspicions about Dean Foods have proven correct as a system pattern of corporate agribusinesses’ skirting the laws has emerged. Investigations found the industry fails to permit grazing, or access to the out-of-doors, as mandated by federal organic regulations.

“The federal organic regulations are clear in that all livestock sold as organic must have access to pasture,” Mark Kastel, senior farm policy manager at Cornucopia told Organic Consumers Association.

Despite the federal regulations, shoppers often feel tricked when they see images taken of animal feeding operations. Through continuing research, Cornucopia created “organic brand scorecards,” which serve as a guide to shoppers when they look for organic brands delivering on the promise of improved environmental stewardship.

Something the organic industry does have on its side are the regulatory requirements which certify banned substances. As usual, when it comes to big business and government agencies, the reality is different. Despite the regulations, the USDA is slow and inept at enforcing its rules. The lack of quality oversight makes it difficult to know if any particular food with the designation “certified natural” was produced without prohibited substances such as pesticides.

For regulatory agencies, the battle against organic produce fraud can be a two-steps-forward-one-step-backward approach due to overwhelming demand.

As of 2006, the US’s appetite for organic food grows at about 15 percent annually, according to The Associated Press. This leaves the door open for fake organic products to flood the market. Since consumer demand exceeds domestic supply, the US is forced to look elsewhere for organic foods. Enter the import market.

The imports though come with quality control challenges. John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing, told the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Coalition in Aberdeen, South Dakota, recently, “Although organic farmers welcome high-quality imports, many are coming from nations which have been found to have serious problems with organic integrity.”

American organic farmers have to compete with world producers that don’t sustain the same high organic production standards called for in the US.

USDA Tightens Up

An audit by the USDA’s National Organic Program looked pretty good in 2012 — at first glance. Following up on testing over 570 products, the USDA found 95 percent met USDA guidelines. A closer inspection indicated the USDA allowed pesticide residue under levels established by the EPA. After the numbers had been crunched, over 50 percent of “organic” produce weren’t organic and in fact contained prohibited pesticides.

Observers point to older regulations relying on a variety of third-party jobbers for certification of pesticide limits. The certifiers bill the grower a royalty of up to 3 percent of the farm’s receipts in addition to a $2,000 surcharge for the inspection. The system was honor-based, as no actual examination occurred.

Without adequate measurement completed on site, it cannot be determined if an organic grower is being honest or not.

The USDA has changed its rules following the 2012 audit, and now regulations must emphasize the fact that certifiers aren’t doing proper measurements. The new rules demand certifiers examine specimens from at least 5 percent of the facilities they inspect.

A portion of the USDA’s funding is set aside for enforcement. The bureau receives over 200 complaints each year. In 2013, less than 20 farmers or big food growers paid $85,000 for abusing the “organic” label, according to the Genetic Literacy Project. Two cases show the extent of fraud.

Two Large Cases Serve as Examples

Ken Nelson fraudulently marketed more than $40 million of allegedly organic compost to production between 2003 and 2009. His “organic” produce was grown using ammonia and ammonium sulfate.

In Oregon, Harold Chase pleaded guilty to marketing fraud when he labeled more than 4 million pounds of corn fraudulently marked as “organic.” Chase would purchase conventional corn, relabel it as organic, and then sell the corn to Oregon organic cattle farmers.

Chase, arrested and held without bail by Springfield, Oregon, authorities was later sentenced to 27 months of prison time by Judge Ann Aiken. He told him he had made a huge mistake to commit his crime in Lane County.

Aiken noted the “area’s strong interest in pesticide-free foods.”

Amanda Marshall, the US attorney, told the press that the crime Chase committed not only hurt “the local community, but the organic industry as well.”

“The defendant intentionally undermined an entire regulatory scheme out of greed,” added Marshall.