Who can you trust?
Walk inside any grocery store and you can see that the organic food industry is booming. More and more products are carrying the USDA Certified Organic label. But how does the USDA determine whether a food is actually organic, and how reliable is that system?
Most people would assume that the USDA Certified label means that the product was inspected by the Department of Agriculture. However, the USDA doesn’t directly verify organic claims. Rather, they certify independent organizations to make the determination whether a product is organic or not. There are currently 80 certifiers, a mix of private companies and state agencies, who can make the determination whether a food has been grown and processed according to organic standards. That might seem like a large number, but that’s 80 companies worldwide. Only 47 certifiers have offices in the United States. That’s not even one per state! With over 43,000 farms and businesses currently in the organic supply chain, this patchwork system leaves plenty of room for error.
The USDA currently maintains a list of companies found to be falsely using the Certified Organic label. Many claimed certification from companies not recognized by the USDA. Others edited valid certifications, essentially stealing another business’s documentation to use for products that were never inspected at all. Some of these fraudulent certifications were used for years before they were caught. For farms and companies in the US, this false labeling can lead to hefty fines and even possible jail time. For foreign companies, however, there’s little real risk to violating American laws. And because certification is determined by private inspectors who have to pay thousands of dollars to the USDA, there are concerns that the system is open to bribery.
With roughly 80% of all organic food sold in America being imported, we have a right to be concerned over the many loopholes in the certification system. In 2017 36 million pounds of soybeans from Ukraine were found to have been falsely labeled as organic sometime before they reached California, increasing their sale price by $4 million. Later that year millions of pounds of Romanian corn were passed off as organic as well. Both shipments passed through Turkey, one of America’s largest organic suppliers. One German study found that 37% of Chinese imports that were labeled as organic contained significant amounts of pesticide residue. Many of these falsely-labeled imports aren’t sold directly to consumers; they’re used as animal feed or ingredients in processed foods. Companies and farms that are diligent about using organic ingredients can still be fooled by mislabeled imports.
Of course, it’s not just imports that risk being falsely labeled. In the largest known case company based in Iowa worked with American farmers to knowingly sell mislabeled corn and soybeans. In what the media dubbed the “Field of Schemes,” farmers mixed GMO grains grown with pesticides with a small amount of organic grain that had passed organic inspection. The company selling this grain was able to undercut the prices of legitimate organic products, hurting other growers. The farmers involved made over $120 million in profits, while American consumers paid at least $250 million for products made with the fraudulent grains. Because of the patchwork certification system that relies heavily on the honesty of individual farmers, distributers and inspectors, the “Field of Schemes” was able to exploit the system for over seven years.
There’s only one real way to know if your organic food is what it claims to be - shop local and know your farmer! At Green Owl we don’t just read the labels. We build real relationships with the growers and businesses we get our food from. We visit the farms, walk in the fields and see the animals. We never have to worry about food being relabeled or mixed with another product because it comes from the farm directly to our store. When you shop at Green Owl you know you’re getting what you pay for - high quality, locally-grown food with no contamination.