USDA needs to crack down on bogus organics

Young man choosing oranges in the supermarket How can you be sure that food you’re holding is actually organic? Photo: Thinkstock

A July 3 editorial from Agweek, published in Grand Forks, North Dakota.


U.S. commercial agriculture produces more food than American consumers can consume. We want to send our surplus to the world — frozen chicken, edible beans, soybeans.

Conversely, we want agricultural imports. In the Upper Great Plains of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana, we want fresh fruits and vegetables in the winter. If not from California, Arizona and Florida we’ll take them from Mexico, Chile and Costa Rica. Fish? We’ll get that from China, Indonesia, Chile and Vietnam.

But world trade has pitfalls. The U.S. just suspended shipments of Brazilian beef on allegations that JBS and BRF were allowing rotten meat into the system.

The issue is even bigger for organics. U.S. organic producers often qualify for market premiums for the products they grow with their own third-party certified rules that include such things as certain rotations, non-GMOs, and non-synthetic weed control.

The U.S. organic market expands 14 to 15 per cent per year and the domestic market can’t keep up. The market for organics accounts for about five per cent of total expenditures for food, but it grows by roughly 14 to 15 per cent per year.

At the January meeting of the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society winter conference in Aberdeen, S.D., Agweek reported concerns about “fake organics” from foreign sources. John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) based in Stevens Point, Wis., described new reports of suspicious organic corn coming into Pacific Northwest ports from a port in Istanbul, Turkey.

In late February the Washington Post started investigating the potential of organic fraud. In one case it documented that conventionally grown corn from Turkey “magically turned” to organic corn at Stockton, Calif., ports. Most of the ships hold more than 450,000 bushels. The extra profit as organic would be $4 million on that load, according to the newspaper.

On May 30, 2017, Beyaz Agro of Turkey made news when it withdrew from U.S. organic certification in the wake of allegations of fraud by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

Beyaz Agro was accused of selling feed-grade soybeans grown in the Ukraine as organic but fumigating them before they left the U.S. — a violation of organic rules. Four shipments were allegedly described as organic but with false information to USDA-accredited inspectors.

Bobbe’s organization is asking for greater auditing of large shipments of organic imports, similar to the European Union.

The U.S. tests only five per cent of the shipment volumes, compared to the European Union testing 100 per cent of shipments. The European Commission — the governing body for agricultural trade for the EU — requires extra testing for “high-risk” countries bordering the Black Sea, including Turkey.

No broker certification

OFARM notes that in Canada, brokers must be certified. Meanwhile, in the U.S., no certification is needed to purchase imported grain and present it to the market as organic. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service simply approves imports free of noxious weed seeds or insects — and doesn’t check for organic standards.

They want the U.S. Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration inspectors to be schooled up on proper documentation and paperwork for organic. They want USDA boots on the ground in countries of origin and an audit trail equivalent to what American farmers face.

Bobbe acknowledges this is more difficult in countries where the farmers are small and the governments are unstable.

Meanwhile, the Organic Trade Association has commended the USDA for coming down on violators and says oversight must be “rigorous and robust.” They have called for a study task force, which producer groups say is inadequate.

Bobbe, an agricultural economist, has conducted his own study that indicates organic farmers in 12 Midwest states, including the Dakotas and Minnesota, lost $75 million in a year in premiums due to imports of organic corn and soybeans in the 2015 and 2016 crop years, compared to the 2014 crop year before the imports heated up.

The stakes are high. U.S. organic meat and poultry is grown on 40 per cent imported organic corn and 70 to 90 per cent imported organic soybeans.

American farmers shouldn’t have to compete with a flood of fake, foreign imports. Consumers shouldn’t be fooled into buying them.

This article appeared in the July 27, 2017 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.