Fraud or drift? USDA finds 43 percent of organic foods contain ‘prohibited’ substances

Organic proponents like to make a big deal over farming without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and have tried to show that not using these chemicals leads to healthier and safer food. Regardless of whether there’s any scientific basis for health or safety benefits, however (and there’s not, say the most widely accepted meta-study, by Stanford University scientists), one thing that the organic industry has going for it are regulations for certifying what pesticide residues are prohibited. But in reality the US Department of Agriculture does little to enforce the rules and that gives reason to question whether any specific food labelled certified organic food was really produced without prohibited substances.

In 2012, the USDA’s National Organic Program released the results of an audit of organic foods in the United States. At first, the findings looked pretty good for organic farmers. After testing 571 samples of produce for 200 conventional pesticides, fully 96 percent were in compliance with USDA organic regulations. However, a closer look at those regulations shows that the USDA allowed pesticide residues below tolerance levels set by the EPA. When you take the 4 percent of organic produce that violated USDA (and EPA) rules, you then have to add pesticide residues that were indeed on the sample, but below EPA tolerances, which are set up for safety reasons, not for organic industry purity belief systems. When added up, this means that 43 percent of organic produce had prohibited pesticides, in some amount.

The USDA pointed to accidental drift of pesticides as the reason. But to former organic farm inspector and current advisor to the Heartland Institute Mischa Popoff, that’s unlikely. “Any organic farm has a 25-foot buffer,” he said. “So every pace you take reduces any drifting pesticide residue by a factor of 10. So, that 43 percent cannot possibly come from drifting over another farm.” In fact, a University of Nebraska guideline for pesticide application shows how quickly pesticide sprays fall to the ground, depending on droplet size.

Inspect standing fields

Popoff says that the USDA and Canadian agricultural officials need to do what he was never able to do as an inspector—test standing crops in the field. Currently, the USDA’s National Organic Program has pushed for certifiers to test end products, consisting of fruits, vegetables and other organic products that already have been harvested. “But you need to inspect a farm when the crop is standing,” he said. “That’s when an inspector can say, ‘wait, that doesn’t look right. Or, your yield is much too high.’”

Current regulations depend on a group of third-party companies that act as certifiers, carrying out the USDA organic rules on the agency’s behalf. Certifiers will charge the farmer a royalty fee between 1.5 percent and 3 percent of the farm’s receipts and as much as $2,000 for inspections. And nearly all the time, an inspection from a certifier will consist of an interview with the farmers and a review of the copious paperwork documenting the organic farm’s activities. “It’s an honor-based system. There’s no actual testing at the farm, and you’re just reviewing paperwork that says, yes, the farmer avoided pesticides,” Popoff said.

Without such testing, there is no way to determine whether an organic farmer is cheating, or heavy amounts of pesticides did indeed waft their way onto organic plots. Popoff recalled that during his last year as a USDA-certifier inspector, he tried to train his colleagues to inspect samples. This effort was met with significant resistance from farmers as well as government officials, several of whom told him “you’re going to destroy the organic industry,” and that “we have everything to lose and nothing to gain from field testing.”

Related article:  Sustainability failure: Anti-GMO France's 10-year effort to slash pesticide use boosted spraying by 12%

A recent rule change from USDA appears to underscore the fact that certifiers aren’t doing much testing, either of samples or of standing crops. The new rules, finalized in 2013, require organic certifiers to “test samples from at least 5 percent of the operations they certify on an annual basis.” While the law has always required some kind of sample testing, it’s been up to “the discretion of the certifier.” The original attempts for rule-changing included spot testing of fields, Popoff has written. But under the current rules and considering that the certifier is paid by the farmer and has no real incentive to get tough on its customers, there’s not much room for rigor.

Organic industry to the rescue?

One surprising source of pressure for more testing—or at least enforcement—is coming from supporters of organic food. The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, recently sent photos of a certified organic farm in Texas that the group alleged was illegally keeping cows and other livestock indoors—on the surface, a violation of organic farming rules. But the understaffed USDA declined to investigate. Online supplement sales maven and anti-GMO activist Joe Mercola has warned that organics sold by the national Whole Foods grocery chain have a 50/50 chance of not being organic, despite the label.

As part of the USDA’s funding for its National Organic Program, money is set aside for enforcement. The agency gets about 200 complaints every year from people who think that organic food actually isn’t. In 2013, just 19 farmers or food companies paid $87,000 for misusing the organic label. While the USDA says it’s stepping up its game, some cases show how widespread fraud can be, even from a single supplier:

  • Kenneth Nelson, from Bakersfield, California, pleaded guilty to fraudulently selling more than $40 million of allegedly organic fertilizer to farmers between 2003 and 2009. It turned out his “organic” product was made using aqueous ammonia and ammonium sulfate. How was he caught? County environmental health inspectors discovered the chemicals at the site, and called in a raid.
  • In Oregon, Harold Chase pleaded guilty to fraud for selling more than 4.2 million pounds of corn that had been labeled as organically grown. Chase was actually buying conventionally grown corn, labeling it organic and selling the product to Oregon organic livestock ranchers.

These cases illustrate that certification fraud can extend far beyond one farm. And without any type of testing while growing and planting are going on, it is difficult to identify the culprit.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow@AMPorterfield on Twitter.

98 thoughts on “Fraud or drift? USDA finds 43 percent of organic foods contain ‘prohibited’ substances”

      • There are ways of doing no till organic agriculture without using herbicides. Look up the Rodale Institute. Besides, organic herbicides aren’t particularly effective anyway in my own experience.

          • Anyway my point was that it is an ongoing experiment as far as I know. It hasn’t been abandoned.

          • That’s funny. An organic farmer in Ontario sent me this photo just last spring. I mean, I can’t speak with the same level of certainty that you guys do because I haven’t talked to him recently to see if he used it in 2015. Obviously one of you has – were you speaking with Chris or Bob?

          • Oh, bullshit.

            You’re showing a tiny tractor with an outsized crimper and a drill on the 3-point. Hanging that much weight on the front is going to make the drill bounce. GMAFB.

            Awesome. What’s the germination rate of what’s coming out the seed drill, Rob?

            I’ll bet a buncha money that trying to drill seed into that crimped whatever that is is a losing proposition.

            But let’s pretend. What’s the cover crop, Rob?

            What’s the C:N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio of that cover crop? What does it take to mineralize that cover crop into crop-useful nutrients? How do you get the C:N ratio down to about 20:1 which is what it’s going to take to do any good? You gonna spray some raw manure on it?

            How does that big mat of whatever it is effect insect and disease pressure on whatever the cash crop is in the drill, Rob? Soil temps?

            As long as you’re swiping pictures off the interwebs, lets see the same field 3 weeks later. So where are they?

          • Here’s another shot of the same set-up. You may want to edit your comment about the hitch configuration.
            This farm has been doing this for 5 or 6 years now, so I doubt that they consider it a losing proposition.
            The cover crop is fall rye, by the way. Not much else can put on that much biomass and start heading by soybean planting season in our climate.
            I can email them tomorrow and ask for some crop photos so you can have a few more things to huff and puff and swear about.

          • “Here’s another shot of the same set-up.”

            Sorry, not seeing it, can you post the awesomeness again?

            “This farm has been doing this for 5 or 6 years now, so I doubt that they consider it a losing proposition.”

            Um, yeah, as long as it’s Rodale and not a real farm…

            “The cover crop is fall rye, by the way.”

            You mean cereal rye?

            “I can email them tomorrow and ask for some crop photos so you can have a few more things to huff and puff and swear about.”

            Please do.

          • Rob… you still face the major hurdle of fuel consumption. As with tillage, this system you’re touting looks like it uses at least ten-times the fuel per-acre as compared to spraying.

            As I say, the organic no-till experiment has failed.

          • Totally awesome, Rob.

            How about some up-close pictures of how great that drill works planting into all that residue.

            If you want to be really studly, tell me what it takes to decompose all that residue and convert it into crop-available nutrients.

            You never answered what the C:N ratio of that cover crop residue is.

            So, what is is? 60:1, 40:1? How do your awesome organic buddies get that residue to break down and become crop-available?

            Surface spray of organic pig shit?

            Pretty hilarious how you decided to take your comments private once someone questioned your organic methods, huh?

          • I’m not sure what you mean by “taking comments private”. Sometimes I have more important things to do than read verbal abuse from people who have obviously already got it all figured out and know everything there is to know about everything.
            Research shows that rye at that stage has a C:N ratio between 30 and 40:1. Because it’s crimped and rolled rather than fully incorporated, the soil biology digests it gradually from below while it provides a weed-suppressing and moisture-retaining mulch as the crop becomes established. You don’t get the same level of N tie-up that would occur from “slug feeding” the soil by fully incorporating all that residue (and legumes are often included in the mix for crops that require more N).
            If the drill was having trouble handling that residue, the farmers would have obviously made the necessary modifications. Just do a google search for “roller crimper planting video” and you’ll see them in action. There are equipment manufacturers specifically addressing this challenge in a variety of ways.
            For both conventional and organic growers, by the way.

          • Flatting cover crops is a huge waste of time, resources and machine hours. It is far more cost and time effective just to use tillage, in Organic farming.

  1. Anybody surprised? Why is it that we are supposed to “trust” organic growers, yet conventional farmers are evil and shills for Monsanto?

  2. I have often read Mischa’s stance on this matter. And believe he is likely correct. I have often thought that the inspector being paid by the farm is a bit too close a relationship. However the organic farmers I know personally I do not suspect of cheating. Also they are often small and have little or no neighboring source for unapproved insecticides. So, I wonder if the samples referred to in Andrew’s article were from mainly larger farms with adjoining conventional acreage.

    • With three-quarters of all organic food sod in America being imported from countries like China, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Turkey, it’s really no mystery as to where the contamination is coming from…

      • Mischa, what you say MIGHT be true, except if you actually read the article you are commenting on this was an audit of farms in the United States. You can’t blame China for these results.

          • What data do you have that says that “most” of the products tested were imported? The only products tested were apples, peppers, broccoli, potatoes, strawberries and tomatoes. I know “some” of these might have been imported, but what support can you point to that these were “mostly” imported? The best data I can find suggests less than half of products like this are imported.

          • The first problem here Bill is that there is no data. The USDA will not admit to the volume of foreign product they certify under the NOP. Officials claim they don’t know, which is laughable.

            So, do a quick analysis on your own. It turns out that fully one-third of the domestic operations certified under the NOP are not farmers. They are processors.

            Therefore, they MUST be importing huge amounts of product to process, something in the neighborhood of three-quarters of all organic food sold in America.

          • Your logic doesn’t hold water. It MIGHT be right, but is insufficient to draw any real conclusion. There are obviously commodities that are virtually 100% imported. Coffee, cocoa, and bananas quickly come to mind. These products skew any percentage of organic processors dramatically. These were not included in the study. Many processors handle only domestic produce, and are quite local.

            Your argument that it “its all China’s fault” (and Mexico and Brazil and Chile, and etc.) is hand waving without data. Just as I have no data to refute it.

            The piece of data that struck me as most important from this study is that about more than half of the fresh organic produce had residues statistically the same as conventional produce. The argument that the reported residues are caused by drift are silly.

            Organic is even more of a fraud than I thought.

          • Yes, it is nothing short of absurd for organic activists to pretend almost HALF of all organic product tests positive for prohibited pesticides due to spray drift.

            But… I’m confused Bill… where did I say it’s all China’s fault? I said three-quarters of all organic food sold in America is imported from countries LIKE China. And if anyone is to blame, it’s the leadership of the organic industry… not the Chinese.

  3. So to determine who is right, we should require mandatory testing of organic foods for all pesticides and put that information on a required label.

  4. So we can’t trust anyone with our food it seems. Greed and corruption everywhere.
    Why so much food from other countries? Seems like a big security risk.
    What are the things that stand in the way of getting more American farmers growing more food?

    • Why so much food from other countries. Lower labor and sometimes input costs, economies of scale in shipping, low liability risk, and few or no environmental regulations.

      • If that were a review for a restaurant I don’t think anyone would eat there. Yet people don’t seem concerned about such things.
        I’ve never looked for food but I’ve seen figures on other commodities where the actual real dollar savings for us was minimal. Seems like all the “savings” didn’t make it down to the customer.
        I’ve also seen some crazy things related to commodities trading that seem extremely unfair for farmers.

  5. A farmer or two had mentioned they could use this pesticide or that and, by the time the crop was ready for market, the levels would be below that either couldn’t be detected or the maximum allowed for organic.

    Of course, with fertilizers, i don’t know if there’s any test that could determine if a crop was fertilized from nitrates synthetically fixed or naturally fixed.

    I guess this underscores how little difference there really is between organic and conventional food by the time it hits the market.

  6. Guys. Some critical thought please. Research things like pesticide votalization and deposition. Consider all the steps between the field and the supermarket shelf. Look up the AMS data on actual organic imports and source countries. Talk to a few organic farmers about the inspection process. Realize that pesticide regulation is pesticide regulation is pesticide regulation. Cut the FUD, get the facts.

    • I know about volatalization. And if you were right next door to me, and I sprayed amine-form 2,4-D, I’d have very little to worry about. Herbicide damage is pretty easy to spot, if your precious organic heirloom tomatoes were damaged by my 2,4-D, it would be obvious by observing the foliage.

      Do you warrant that your Songberry Farm (nice name, btw) produce is free of pesticides? No? Why not?

      What kind of subscription weather data do you pay for, Rob?

      I get skew-T/log-P data. Do you even know what that is? Is that potentially useful for predicting inversion layer potential that might affect herbicide drift, even that it’s generally known as a upper atmosphere weather product?

    • As you well know Rob, pesticides dissipate logarithmically… ten-times LESS for every yard.

      This is why we have 25-foot buffers on organic fields that adjoin conventional fields. It all-but eliminates the chance of spray drifting onto an organic crop.

      It’s clear that fraud is rampant in the organic industry. There is no other possible conclusion.

  7. Sorry, Joe. We could talk about thermal inversions, wind speed and direction, boom height and configuration, , nozzle characteristics, evaporation rate, spray viscosity and pressure, ground speed, and spray adjuvants. But our resident expert has proclaimed that “pesticides dissipate logarithmically” and that therefore buffer width is the only consideration that matters.

    • “Resident expert”? Wow. I’m feeling kind of flattered here Rob.

      But actually, I’m only bringing everyone up-to-speed on what crop scientists long-ago figured out regarding spray drift, and why our organic industry decided upon 25-foot buffers to protect organic crops from it.

      • Mischa, do you know if there have been any reported problems about organic spray drift negatively affecting neighboring crops, whether conventional or GE? The question is whether the buffers provide drift protection both ways.

      • Oh, he’s just whining.

        Somehow or another, he has apparently forgotten that growing an identity-preserved crop is his responsibility, not that of his neighbors.

        I grow seed soybeans for a significant soybean seed company. Not Monsanto or Pioneer, but another company that is relatively important in the soybean business. I have enough acreage to isolate my seed bean fields from “pollution” from my neighbors. I get a premium per bushel to grow seed soybeans. It doesn’t make me rich, though. We have meetings with the seed company well before planting time, agree on pre-plant herbicide treatment and other stewardship matters. It’s all lined out on paper before the seed goes into the ground. I go into it with my eyes open, the seed company does, too.

    • Your, “resident expert”?

      Is he as ill-informed as you, Rob?

      Part of the organic dance is, “oh noes, they’re using bad chemicals right next to us!”

      But you guys can never show foliage damage.

      So, tell me what that means, Rob.

        • LOL!

          Yeah, I know about Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.

          And quit trying to play lawyer, Rob.

          You wanna see the text from the MN Supreme Court decision?

          Probably not, but here it is:

          “Because Minnesota does not recognize claims for trespass by particulate matter, the district court did not err in dismissing respondents’ trespass claim as a matter of law.”

          “In summary, we conclude that the Johnsons’ trespass claim, and nuisance and negligence per se claims based on 7 C.F.R. § 205.202(b), fail as a matter of law.”

          What else ‘ya got, counselor?

          You should stick to fleecing consumers at the farmers’ market and not try to play lawyer, Rob.

          • Your mobile goal posts and personal attacks are duly noted, dear anonymous commenter. Enjoy your evening.

          • No one’s moving any goal posts.

            You’re the one that alleged something that turned out to be wrong.

            I’ll accept your apology in any form that you’re man enough to admit it.

          • You stated that there has never been damage. The case I cited shows that the MDA found clear evidence of damage on several occasions, and the defendant even admitted to causing damage. The court case was determined on the basis of whether damage caused by particulate matter could constitute trespass.
            You claimed no evidence of damage. I showed multiple occurrences of damage, verified by a state government agency, (and could find more). So you decided to move the goal posts and make it about winning a court case.

          • The discussion here is about whether or not pesticide drift occurs and causes damage. This is the only claim I’m trying to verify.

            You make a point that valid claims could be offered compensation. This is, in fact, what happened in the case we’re discussing: “Ultimately, the co-op agreed to pay the farmer damages for lost production and agreed to give the farmers notice 24 hours before spraying adjacent fields. In 2007, the co-op again over-sprayed and the MDA required the farmers plow under the tainted soybeans. Yet again, in 2008, MDA found evidence of overspray and cited the co-op for illegal spraying.”

            I do apologize if I invented something you said. Up above, someone posting as “JoeFarmer” wrote “Part of the organic dance is, ‘oh noes, they’re using bad chemicals right next to us!’ But you guys can never show foliage damage.” I guess that must have been another “JoeFarmer” – anonymous commenters are sometimes hard to keep track of.

            Have a nice evening.

          • I’m sure you’ll have a nice evening knowing that you can justify jacking up your margins by slapping the word “organic” on your operation. You people in the organic business are nothing but gangsters. Freaking frauds.

    • They’re one and the same. I’ve never heard Mischa’s opinion on climate change, but his friend and co-writer Patrick Moore is one of the most outspoken pro-GMOers and climate change denialists around.
      Moore has never bothered to explain how he can forcefully argue for the scientific consensus in favor of GMOs on the one hand and just as forcefully deny the scientific consensus on climate change on the other.

      • No. It made me pause – notice my second sentence. And I didn’t understand, though Rob’s comment helped me understand (since I also read some of the other exchanges you and he had).

        It actually makes a lot of sense if we include an ideological bias: Climate change denial seems to be associated with a “free market belief,” bad for big business (now mixing ideologically laden terminology to make my response to crush easier). GMOs are good for big business (in the same kind of broad-stroke mentality as about climate change). So, it is actually not as contradictory as it seems (which does not mean it is correct or not based on faulty thinking…)

        • Most GMOs are, in fact, non-proprietary, and require no pesticides.

          Try to focus on the issue at hand Rachel. I worked for 5 years as a USDA-contract organic inspector. But I left the inspection biz because we weren’t allowed to test organic crops to ensure they were safe or genuine.

          The only issue here is whether people like Rob Wallbridge will support organic field testing, or will they instead continue to perpetuate a system that allows almost HALF of all organic food to test positive for prohibited pesticides?

          It makes no difference who I am or what organizations I am associated with. You must confront the fact that the organic industry has been totally corrupted.

          • So trying to sort through the issues is not okay here? Sorry, I don’t have your background. I have been awash in anti-GMO stuff and I am trying to see what is really going on, what the science is saying. Or to put it more bluntly: I am trying to un-corrupt my mind!

            So instead of reprimanding me here, it would have been way more helpful to point me to something like this:

            I can only begin to imagine how annoying it must be to have to repeat yourself over and over again, so I can understand your reaction. And it probably didn’t help that I didn’t give enough context for my stumbling over the reference to Heartland. Nor that I fell into “guilt by association” with that. Mea culpa.

          • My sincerest apologies. I thought you might be rejecting me because of my close ties with The Heartland Institute. If that’s not the case, let’s keep chatting!

  8. Part of GLP’s mission is to heap fear and doubt on organic foods while labeling proponents of GMO labeling as anti-science. All in a days work for this propaganda site. No surprise that the Heartless Institute and Popoff are quoted as sources.

    • What a stupid statement. First Popoff has every right to comment on this site, as do you. GLP is not linked in any way to Heartland Institute. We received donations from three independent foundations. I you disagree with views presented by individual writers on the GLP, then write a fact based/science based article, and it will be posted as a regular article. That offer is open to you, Popoff and anyone else on all sides of the debate over genetics/biotechnology in society. I know you are used to only reading anti-GMO propaganda sites that only cover one side of the issue and would NEVER run stories counter to their ideology. There is no ideology at the GLP; just individual voices. Do you have the smarts/wisdom to actually write something coherent, or is your role just to post mindless attack comments? We’ll see. If you would like to write, contact me directly, and it will be arranged.

  9. That buffer zone sounds really small. 25′ is hardly going to cut it in all sorts of situations. Our agencies have entire webpages, manuals and courses devoted to chemical handling and none mention such a small buffer zone.

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