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The Organic Trade Association will monitor imports more carefully after millions of dollars worth of non-organic grain was mislabeled.

Mike Pomranz
June 13, 2017

When you purchase organic food, you expect the product you receive to be, uh, organic. But how do you really know? Unlike, say, comparing different varieties of apples, conventional apples look the same as organic apples: The difference is in the process. Within the US, inspection agencies operate to make sure organic farmers are on the up-and-up, but verifying foreign imports have proven to be trickier, and as The Washington Post reports, the paper’s own findings of millions of pounds of imported fake organic grains has helped lead to the creation of a new task force dedicated to ensuring the integrity of organic products imported to America.

Last month, The Post ran an expose on these fraudulent organic imports. In one example, 36 million pounds of soybeans traveled from the Ukraine to Turkey to California. Somewhere along the way, those beans were illicitly designated as “USDA Organic,” a move which added approximately $4 million in value to the shipment. Needless to say, the stakes on this kind of fraud is extremely high – not just for those making a million dollar windfall, but for honest organic farmers in the US who are seeing their prices undercut. As a result, the Organic Trade Association has announced a new task force to tackle the issue. “There is a strong desire on the part of industry to stop the incidence of fraud in organic,” Laura Batcha, director of the association, told The Post. “The consumer expects that organic products are verified back to the farm. The industry takes that contract with the consumer very seriously.”

However, many farmers are reportedly skeptical an OTA task force will make any difference, in part because the group has often been criticized for supporting big business over smaller farmers. “It remains to be seen whether this effort is serious or not,” John Bobbe, who is the executive director of a farmer cooperative, told The Post. “The OTA has been strangely quiet about this issue. It seems they have been looking the other way - the ‘see no evil’ scenario. But I guess they can’t ignore it now. I think the fire is burning enough that the flames can't be stamped out.”

For her part, Batcha said she wants to get the USDA involved in the effort. “We’re going to Congress - we want to close the loopholes,” Batcha was quoted as saying. “The task force’s work is important but it’s not the only thing we’re doing.” Meanwhile, for the consumer, the takeaway is that even items labeled “USDA Organic” aren’t 100 percent foolproof because the financial implications are probably even bigger than the health ones.