Organic Food Fraud Is a Big Problem—Here’s What the Government Plans to Do About It

Is your organic produce really organic? The USDA has a plan to make sure it is.

Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

When you buy organic foods at the supermarket, they cost more: As a result, you expect to get more… or get “less,” depending on how you look at it. But as a report last year revealed, millions of pounds of non-organic soybeans and corn from Eastern Europe had somehow magically received organic labeling by the time they reached U.S. stores, dramatically increasing their value, undercutting legitimate organic farmers, and potentially even undermining organic certifications as a whole.

If a mere 36 million pounds of soybeans can slip through the system, clearly, organic fraud is an issue, so now the USDA has announced a new three-prong approach to help detect and prevent similar problems moving forward, with Jennifer Tucker, associate deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) saying that “enforcement is our top priority,” according to FoodNavigator-USA.

Of course, as anyone who has ever grabbed an apple and wondered “How the heck am I supposed to know if this is really organic or not?” can attest too, determining the integrity of organic products is never readily apparent—which probably explains why the USDA is trying to tease its “action plan,” as Tucker described it, into “three core areas” that are easier to digest.

The first area is “strong organic control systems.” It sounds vague, but in simple terms, the idea is to build trust in the people certifying your food organic. After all, an organic label is only valid if you trust the person who put it there so the USDA wants to do things like bolster training and accreditation programs for those on the front line of organic labeling.

Second, Tucker spoke of “farm to market traceability that leads to worldwide supply chain integrity.” Using soybeans as an example, somewhere between Eastern Europe and America, there was a blind spot in the system. The USDA recognizes that those gaps are where unsavory activity happens, so they want to close them. Specifically, Tucker suggested this means “increased reporting to the organic integrity database” along with other potential measures.

Third, Tucker promised more “robust enforcement.” Needless to say, the oldest way to prevent crime is punishment and, for the USDA, that apparently means everything from increasing and better training staff at the NOP, more surveillance and unannounced inspections, improving the complaint process, and making public examples of violators as a deterrent.

Despite all this, Tucker seemed to emphasize that, though the NOP has room to improve, shoppers also shouldn’t be wary of what they're buying right now. “The organic sector remains strong and vibrant and consumers continue to trust the organic label,” she said.

Trust really is what organic labels are all about—and that trust is worth big money for those in the organic food business. If organic certifications are undermined to the point where consumers stop believing them, the entire industry could fall apart, no matter how honest the companies behind the labels are.

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