Can consumers rely on the credibility of the USDA organic label?

When the Washington Post isn’t lighting the funeral pyre for our dying democracy, the paper is doing solid investigative work into the organic-food industry. Over the past decade, the media has largely avoided scrutinizing the $40 billion organic market. An organic-friendly Obama administration and wealthy organic-company executives who are generous Democratic-party donors boosted organic’s influence in both the government and the media, helping promote the phony narrative that organic products are healthier, pesticide-free, and locally grown.

In two articles [in May], the Post’s Peter Whoriskey exposes the dubiousness of the organic label and the alarming trend of fraudulent organic grains being imported here. For his May 1 article, “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic,” Whoriskey tracked a few milk producers to see whether they followed the Department of Agriculture’s strict but weakly enforced guidelines for organic certification. Organic milk can cost twice as much as conventional milk, and, as Whoriskey correctly surmises, “if organic farms violate organic rules, consumers are being misled and overcharged.”

The Post surveilled Aurora Organic Dairy — a major milk supplier for house organic brands sold by retailers such as Walmart and Costco — and found that the company appeared to violate rules about how often the cows were grass-fed, a key differential between conventional and organic milk production. The Post had several organic milk samples tested to measure for two fats that are more prevalent in organic milk (although in amounts inconsequential to human health), and most fell short. Whoriskey says that the integrity of the organic label rests on “an unusual system of inspections” that the head of the USDA’s organic program calls “fairly unique.” Organic producers pay a private inspector, approved by the USDA, to certify their products as organic; the agency checks in on those inspectors every few years. The USDA has only 82 certified inspection firms to supervise a massive organic supply chain of more than 31,000 farms and businesses worldwide. This leaves plenty of room for error and fosters a pay-to-play climate that benefits producers and inspectors at the expense of unwitting consumers.

auroraThe burgeoning organic market has also created a huge demand for imports here. (We are a net importer of organic goods; so much for “locally grown.”) Most alarming is the importation of allegedly organic grains from Ukraine, Turkey, India, and China, countries with uncertain food-safety standards, to use as animal feed. Any organic meat or animal by-product, such as milk or eggs, must be sourced from animals fed organic-only grains. Since nearly all the corn and soybeans grown in the U.S. are from genetically engineered seeds — and therefore forbidden under federal organic standards — the organic versions of those grains are now being shipped here from around the world. In 2016, we imported $160 million in organic yellow corn, a 400 percent increase just since 2014, and $250 million in organic soybeans, a 75 percent increase in two years.

But the Post investigated what some have questioned about these imported organic grains: their authenticity. In his May 12 bombshell article, Whoriskey reveals how 36 million pounds of soybeans from Ukraine, shipped through Turkey to California last year, “underwent a remarkable transformation” from conventional to organic. The fraud increased the value of the beans by $4 million, since organic grains are worth more than non-organic. Whoriskey found that at least 21 million pounds of the phony organic soybeans have already entered the food supply — a potential safety threat, since it’s unknown how these grains were grown and handled.

Related article:  With organic sales booming, proponents aim to recruit more farmers to reduce reliance on foreign imports

The Post reported on two other fraudulent shipments of organic grains in the past year that “were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities. All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary.” I contacted the USDA, and a spokesman told me the agency is investigating unspecified shipments of corn and soybeans “intended for the organic market that appear not to meet the requirements of the national organic regulations or may have been exposed to a prohibited substance during shipment.” He confirmed that “enforcement actions are underway against the parties involved.” Penalties can result in a fine of up to $11,000 per violation.The problem, as Jason Kuo writes in a Post column on May 22, is that the USDA doesn’t directly oversee international organic producers. Instead, “the USDA outsources its authority to equivalent agencies in other countries, as well as third-party certifiers.” This raises the real possibility that plenty of food companies are using these questionable grains to claim that their products are organic when they are not, and then sell them at a premium.

organic valleyFor example. Organic Valley is the largest producer of organic dairy in the U.S., selling milk to other organic companies such as Stonyfield Yogurt. Miranda Leis, Organic Valley’s feed coordinator, told me that “on the rare occasions when we are forced to buy imported feed due to domestic shortages, we use two trusted sources that trace certified shipments directly back to the farms where the feed is grown.” However, in a 2015 e-mail to me on this same subject, Organic Valley verified that their farmers might use imported grains that “likely originated” from countries such as Turkey and Romania, which should raise questions about their authenticity (that’s not to say the company used the fraudulent beans, only that all of these imports should now be suspect.) But Luo points out that the U.S. does not recognize the national regulator for Turkey, which should give all organic purveyors reason to doubt the legitimacy of those grains. All of this underscores the inanity of the organic system. Why would anyone trust soybeans from India more than soybeans from Indiana? Furthermore, importing grains grown in abundance here betrays the central appeal of organic: There is nothing “local” or environmentally friendly about shipping in millions of pounds of grains we don’t need.

The organic industry has long peddled the myth that its food is healthier and better for the environment. Consumers buy organic because they wrongly believe it’s grown locally and without pesticides. Now there are serious questions about whether most of the pricey products labeled by our government as “organic” actually are. This scam requires more than a few solid newspaper investigations. The federal government, particularly our new agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, should take a much closer look at this system, and consumers should take a second look at what they are buying.

A version of this article appeared at National Review as “When ‘Organic’ Food Isn’t” and has been republished here with permission from the authors and the original publisher. 

Julie Kelly is a food writer and National Review Online contributor. Follow her on Twitter @julie_kelly2.

27 thoughts on “Can consumers rely on the credibility of the USDA organic label?”

  1. I wondered about the snarky attack on the Washington Post in the first sentence, and then I got to the end of the article where it said this article first appeared in the National Review. I think it really detracts from what you are saying when you simultaneously attack and quote the same source to buttress your argument. I think “WAPO,” “NYT,” the LA Times and other media being derided as “MSM” by conservatives are the only institutions keeping American democracy alive today. When one party controls the House, Senate, White House, the Supreme Court and 32 state legislatures, all through gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, you know democracy is in trouble.

    • I don’t know where you get your information about “voter suppression”, but here in my district there are lots & lots of voters. They don’t appear to be suppressed, in fact they appear to be invigorated. If your district is feeling suppressed, I suggest you get out and motivate them, not just sit around moaning.

      • Ah yes, the “personal anecdote” offered as evidence. When the anti-GMO nuts offer personal anecdotes about family members they just “know” were sickened or killed by GMOs or Roundup, we who know better are quick to call them out on it. But when our own ox is getting gored, we resort to the personal anecdote too. I happen to live in Japan but I inform myself from various American MSM sources, none of them the “Alt-Right” media like FOX News or Breitbart. There have been many articles on legal voter suppression, like ID laws and limitation of polling places, and other types of voter suppression, like targeted negative messaging in Facebook and other social media. The Supreme Court just refused to hear an appeal of North Carolina against a lower court finding that the state voter ID law had targeted minority voters with “surgical precision.” I am at least glad that you have no personal experience that gerrymandering has not occurred in your district… Oh, and yes, I do contribute to various political organizations that are very involved in get-out-the-vote efforts. Have a nice day.

        • You approach politics as if you were rooting for your favorite sports team. A fantasy world is not the place to live. Get out and learn something about life in other countries, preferably those of the underdeveloped world that are being ruled by despots (Venezuela, North Korea come to mind) before spewing shit about how bad life is in the USA. Your derision of “conservatives” (whatever that means) is a clue to your closed mindedness and uninformed mentality. Get out of your protective bubble and learn something about what hunger and preventable disease actually mean to those who suffer. You don’t have a clue about what constitutes privation and hardship.

          • Are you sure you are posting to the right thread? I only mentioned “conservatives” once, to say they derided the MSM. The rest of this discussion has been about democracy and voter suppression in the USA. The last year I lived in the USA was 1997. I have lived first in Europe and now in Japan for 14 years. I am extremely well-informed about current world events and despots around the world, especially Venezuela and N. Korea. Did I say anywhere that there is comparable privation or hardship in the USA? No, I said there was voter suppression and gerrymandering, not the same thing. I think you need to open your mind a little and not be so sensitive to criticism of the USA and conservatives. No country or political movement is perfect. I value highly your comments and opinions on biotechnology and genetic engineering. I would certainly never accuse you of “spewing shit.” Have a nice day.

          • Good for you, having experience ex-USA. I respect that. But, in your absence from N. American politics on the ground, I think you have a distorted view on the subject of gerrymandering and voter suppression. Newsy outlets such as CNN and MSNBC, as well as most of the left-leaning press media, have played that card until it’s frayed at the corners. Just because Hillary lost the election doesn’t mean her support base was gerrymandered, or that her voters didn’t turn out. It just so happened that the electoral college functioned as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.

            As a gesture of respect for your Far Eastern experience, I would ask you, in your present habitat (Japan) do you posit that you would be safer from Puffy Un’s missiles and prospective nuclear conflagration if Hillary had won? I’m not grinding any conservative axe by asking that question of you, I’m genuinely interested in your advice.

          • THE SUPREME COURT HAS REFUSED TO HEAR AN APPEAL BY NORTH CAROLINA OF A FINDING BY A LOWER COURT THAT ITS VOTER ID LAW TARGETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTERS WITH “ALMOST SURGICAL PRECISION.” That means the Supreme Court AGREES with the lower court that North Carolina is suppressing the Black vote. I’m sorry that I had to use caps, but you must have missed it when I pointed out that case the first time. The Supreme Court lives right there in the USA, it is not “absent” in Japan, it saw the legal briefs from the lower court proceedings and it agrees with me: Republicans are suppressing the vote.

            I have been following the “Kim Dynasty” in North Korea for a long time (I am almost 60 years old). The one thing father Kim Jong-il craved and son Kim Jong-un craves is ATTENTION (sounds like someone else we know). That is why they are forever shooting off missiles to try to blackmail other countries into giving them free aid. Taking the bait by militarily threatening them is playing right into their hands. It increases tensions and scares South Koreans into voting for anti-Americans. The best strategy is to ignore them. Let them shoot off all the missiles they want. Don’t give them anything. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction will keep the N. Koreans from ever actually using a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon against another country. I’m all for putting pressure on the Chinese to cut off their assistance for N. Korea. I am not for any military action because the South Koreans (maybe the Japanese too) would be the ones to suffer. I think Hillary Clinton is far less of a lose cannon than Trump, so I would feel safer in almost any situation with her in the White House. You asked…

          • Thank you for your views on the N. Korean situation. It is always best to heed the perspective of people who are closest to the matter at hand. I agree that the current administrations of both the USA and N.Korea are way too bellicose. Given the performance of China to date, though, I am not optimistic that they will do anything about Puffy. I always hold out hope, though, and via conversations with my friends in China, I hope my advice percolates up through the ranks of that country’s undemocratic, sclerotic (Hillary’s terminology) power elite. Here’s my opinion- If Xi really wanted to constrain Puffy, he could with just one flex of his growing military muscle. If Xi might put just one division of his army on the Yalu River, and point a few of his fancy aircraft at Pyongyang, I think Puffy would quickly get the message. If Xi might do that instead of building militarized islands in international waters, Xi would receive the highest degree of acclaim & gratitude from the international community. Frankly, I think even Trump would be impressed. I might even go back to willingly purchasing goods made in China, which I currently try to avoid.

            I also heed the expressed position of PM Abe (leader of your adopted country), which is favorable to U.S. intervention to prevent more missile launches from the hermit kingdom. Anyway, thank you again for your opinion.

            As for voter suppression, gerrymandering as you claim, I find it ironic, incongruous, antithetical that someone who has CHOSEN (sorry for the caps) to live in Japan would accuse the USA of that tactic. It seems unfair of you to castigate the American system for what the Japanese system exemplifies. Some questions for you: How many “African-Japanese” constitute your adoptive society? How many gai-jin (presumably like you) are even permitted to immigrate into Japan? How many Syrian refugees did Japan take in, and how are they faring? Are hijabs prevalent among Yokohama society? Do black lives matter in Japan? If a black activist were stopped by a Japanese traffic cop, would such activist ever again see the light of day in Japan? Based on my own multiple experiences in Japan spanning several decades, and based on my ongoing conversations with Japanese colleagues, I would expect not very many positive responses on the above. Still, I respect and largely admire the Japanese political system, which is at least democratic for the people who intend to construct its society, instead of disintegrating it. In the USA (where your experience is 50 years outdated) there is a great preponderance of the latter.

          • That’s a very hefty portion of red herring. What does Japan have to do with voter suppression (ID laws, shutting polling places, restricting absentee voting) and gerrymandering (drawing districts to pack your opponents into few districts and giving your own party the maximum number of safe districts)? You are engaging in the same arguments as authoritarian dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping who say, “Yeah, we’re bad but so are you!” You are basically conceding that voter suppression and gerrymandering exist in the USA just like in Japan because Japan… doesn’t have any Blacks??? Japan exemplifies voter suppression and gerrymandering??? Are you on medical marijuana or something? Japan has a parliamentary system of government which guarantees PROPORTIONAL representation of political parties in the Japanese parliament. It is not a first-past-the-post representational form of democracy like the USA where the losing voters get ZERO representation in Congress. YOU CAN’T GERRYMANDER a parliamentary system!!!

            You know, I wish I could sit down with you over a beer–or better a six pack, no I think we’d need a keg–and explain to you some basic facts about politics and political systems, but one thing my teaching career has taught me is that one can’t teach unmotivated students no matter how hard one tries. You are sitting there all smug in your middle class home, basking in the after-glow of Trump’s electoral victory, and the last thing you want is someone to tell you you made a mistake or that you have screwed your fellow Americans. Well, then enjoy your life, oblivious to the fates of others. The only thing that will get through to you is when you yourself experience some Republican hard knocks, like when the stock market collapses and you see 40% of your retirement savings go poof, like when the Republicans cut your Social Security or maybe block-grant Medicare. In the meanwhile, I will enjoy reading your opinions on biotechnology.

          • Hey, I’m all for a Sapporo or Kirin any time. Meantime, though, I think you should cool it with your own presuppositions. Who says I voted for, or even supported Trump? Who says I’m smug in a middle class home? Who says I’m even from the USA, or even live in the USA now? You make a lot of assssumptions (pun intended), not only about me but about what you no longer know firsthand from living in the USA, only what’s filtered to you through international “news” media. As I said, your perspective on American society is 50 years outdated. I suggest you go back and get a real dose of what a BLM march looks like, or what a cop-killing rampage entails. I, for one of many, do not wish to live under the sort of tyranny where only the loudmouthed get to comment on TV. But there you are, ensconced in your Japanese bubble, protected from all the societal upheavals that people in multi-ethnic nations face every day. My questions to you remain just as valid as your accusations about me. You may view them as red herrings, but hey, sushi is sushi. Eat it raw on your rice cake!

          • Your denial of voter suppression and gerrymandering by Republicans, your distrust of the “news” media, your thinly veiled racism, your frankly poor argumentative skills, your inability to even remember what you already told me in a previous comment (“I don’t know where you get your information about “voter suppression”, but here in my district there are lots & lots of voters”), all these give you away as an American Trumpster-diver. It would also be the height of hypocrisy to accuse me of being out of touch with the situation in America when you also lived outside the USA, wouldn’t it? That you somehow think in the age of the Internet that my information sources would be restricted to the international news media also indicates a certain advanced age. The non-sequiturs, red herrings, childish name calling and memory lapses suggest early stages of dementia. I would get that checked out.

          • Ah yes, Stuart, you, the racist in truth, like to accuse others of what you see in the mirror every day. If you think you can sit in Japan and propagate hate against others you certainly are the epitome of duplicity. You obviously can’t even parse the irony of it, and probably would be the ultimate supporter of your adopted country’s historical genocidal acts. You talk about racism, yet can’t recognize your own penchant for creating it where it doesn’t exist. Then there’s the Alzheimers thing….keep in mind that Japan is among the top 5 countries exhibiting the syndrome, so you’re the one who needs to be checked out. Good luck with that, you old, wasted gai-jin. Oh, and no, I did not support or vote for Trump. I didn’t support HilLiary either. I voted for a more cerebral candidate who unfortunately did not win. You failed completely on that one!

          • Trump debate rules? What the hell are you talking about? I’m just calling you out for your sanctimony and high-minded criticism against so-called racism of other people, all the while being ensconced in Japan for the past 50 years Then there’s the Murkowski salmon thing…you said you contacted your Senator to object. How could you do that if you emigrated to Japan? I must doubt that any Senator or Congressman in the U.S. would give a hoot about how a Japanese gai-jin feels about anything. Something’s fishy about you.

          • I have already said, “The last year I lived in the USA was 1997. I have lived first in Europe and now in Japan for 14 years.” What part of this sentence can you not comprehend. Have you heard of the concept of an American expatriate? That does not mean I “emigrated” anywhere. I happen to be one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who live and work overseas. We still have to pay taxes to the USA. We are still allowed to vote at our last recorded address in the USA, even if that house now belongs to someone else. My Congressman (a Democrat) is very responsive to my emails. My Senators less so. There is no such thing as a “Japanese gaijin.” Gaijin is a rather racist Japanese word to describe non-Japanese people. It figures that it would become your favorite Japanese word. The only thing fish-like here is your inability to read and comprehend simple English and your proclivity for jumping to conclusions.

          • I agree with you about the fish legislation and some of your other comments on biotechnology, but you appear to be an angry person, and way too quick to criticize the American system of government and our social system…the one you left behind…a long time ago. Angry like some of the American ex-pats that I know in Latin American countries who left home looking for something better, only to find that their adoptive countries are worse than their homeland. I also know many Europeans, and have had many revealing conversations with people of several European nations about racial and ethnic strife in their own countries. So, Mr. Stuart M, you really have no case if you think you can persuade anyone that Americans are more racist than any other societal or political system just because you have cruised the world looking for a place to settle ex-USA. Cool it, else nobody will care much about how you think, including your Congressman. Maybe your Senator would respond better if you remained more civil.

          • WHERE HAVE I CRITICIZED THE AMERICAN SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT OR ITS “SOCIAL SYSTEM” (whatever that is)??? I am the greatest advocate of democracy anywhere. But when state officials abuse their position to suppress voter participation, to suppress democracy, I will be critical. And who appointed you as the arbiter of what can persuade people of anything? The Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit AGREE WITH ME that North Carolina was suppressing the African-American vote with “almost surgical precision.” This voter suppression builds on a long tradition of racism and lynch justice in the USA and especially the South. You really should inform yourself about racism in America before you decide to say anything about it. I dare you to read If you do not read it, I will know that you prefer to remain ignorant about American history and this conversation will be at an end.

          • I read it. Here’s some news: we don’t lynch people now. Lynchings as they once were practiced, ended some ~80 years ago. You must have missed that since you were out the country. And no, the 4th Circuit Court or the Supreme Court did not “agree with you”. It seems that you hold some degree of self-aggrandizement opinion of your position among the erdpolitik. You might agree with the courts’ decisions, but those decisions did not happen because you hold some opinion. They happened even without you presenting any arguments before any judges. In any case, what I stated up front is that in my voting district I have not seen any evidence of voter suppression. On the contrary, voters here have turned out in droves for even the most minor contests. Hell, I even ran for chief magistrate. I haven’t received a majority yet….but will keep on trying. And yes, if you want to end the conversation that would be fine with me. It’s boring to me and off target for the topics at hand.

          • Why does it seem every word out of your mouth is a lie? Are you sure you are not a Trump-lover? Here it is straight from Wikipedia: “The murder of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama in 1981 was the last recorded lynching in the United States. Several Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members beat and killed Michael Donald, a young African-American man, and hung his body from a tree.” And your imbecilic hair-splitting on the meaning of “agree with” won’t get you any points either. One of the many definitions is “to have the same opinion.” Your pathetic anecdotes about no voter suppression in your district don’t measure up to the 4th Circuit Court or the Supreme Court which both “have the same opinion” as I do, that N. Carolina suppresses minority voter participation “with surgical precision.” I suppose you totally passed over the section in that lynching article on the history of voter suppression in the South, too. That is why this new voter suppression is so disturbing, it is a repeat of the same tactics used by the South to roll back all of the civil rights gains achieved by African-Americans after the Civil War.

          • As I said, this topic is boring, and you are out of touch. Wikipedia is your window on the world??? Good luck with the Japan thing….and you have the gall to spew false rhetoric about what you presume American life to be? You don’t even live in America!

          • Attack Wikipedia without addressing the facts that contradict you. Just repeat yourself ad nauseam after I point out every untruth you say. More Trump-Debate-Rules? It’s a shame an American living thousands of miles away in Japan is more informed about American society and politics than you are. Have a nice day.

          • As for Wikipedia, I’m not attacking it. I use it sometimes, but what I’m saying is it’s not my primary resource on societal matters.

            Here’s the thing, Mr. M, you are abrasive, and represent a very crude and obnoxious side of human nature. Acting as you do, I doubt that you fit in with Japanese society, which I know first hand to be quite polite and deferential. You should pay attention to how more civilized people interact. You have made some very big errors in all of your presumptions and allegations. You’ve made some very foolish assumptions about someone else’s (my) race, yet you have no knowledge about that. There is no (zero) credibility in what you presume on that subject. I could be oriental; I could be native American, Hispanic, African (or any derivative thereof), my skin could be blue, magenta, or green. Furthermore, you have no knowledge of my ethnicity, sex, religion, political orientation, geographical location, or any other superficial facet that may describe me. The main things that you do know about me are that I know something (a lot) about agriculture and biotechnology. I’ve already informed you that I did not support Trump for president of the U.S., but apparently that didn’t register long enough for you to consider your own misguided presumptions about me. As for Trump style debating, when you called me a liar you really fit the meme for Mr. Orange! I can hear you now….like a big bully kid screaming SHUDDUP. when someone challenges you.

            Once again, your view of the world fails to palpate American society as it exists today. It seems to be stuck in a time warp wherein you hold grudges that are at least 30 years out of date. Your Congressional representative, whoever that might be, probably would be more attentive to your points of advocacy if you showed up somewhere on this side of the pond once in awhile. You have a nice day too, now.

          • Yes, when people point out how wrong you are, that probably is perceived as “abrasive” and “obnoxious.” How about opening your mind to the possibility that you are wrong? It’s not such a disaster. I used to vote Republican until 2008, now I don’t. Bill Nye “The Science Guy” used to be anti-GMO, now he’s pro-GMO. That is the sign of an intelligent person, go where the evidence is, don’t make it up or deny the evidence. It doesn’t really hurt that much.

          • It is said that one judges a person by his enemies. If that is so, you have done me an immense honor. Thank you, and have a nice day.

          • It’s also said that one who looks for trouble usually gets it. In your case, you seem to have great propensity for creating enemies based on false assumptions. You need to work on that.

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