Maybe you've wondered, while looking at the price tag on some organic produce, whether that label is telling the truth.
Peter Laufer, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, doesn't just wonder. He's an outright skeptic, especially because the organic label seems to him like a license to raise prices. And also because those products are arriving through supply chains that stretch to far corners of the world.
The U.S. imports organic soybeans from China, spices from India, and dried fruits from Turkey. "It just screams to my perhaps prejudiced, cynical, journalist's mind: Is there anything wrong with this?" Laufer says. "This needs some checking."
Two products recently caught Laufer's attention when they showed up in his kitchen: a can of organic black beans from Bolivia and a bag of organic walnuts, which turned out to be rancid, labeled "Product of Kazakhstan."
Laufer's mental fraud alarm went off. "I've done a lot of work in the former Soviet bloc, and when you look at the 'corrupt-o-meter,' it doesn't get much worse than Kazakhstan," he says. Bolivia, he says, isn't much better.
So Laufer tried to find out exactly where those products came from. As he recounts in his new book, Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling, he interrogated store managers, distributors and the company that certified the beans as organic. He had a hard time getting answers, which made him even more suspicious. "It seems to me if everything is clean as a whistle, then you'd be proud to say where the food came from."
Laufer says that's the first reason to distrust organic food. The second is a conflict of interest that's built into the system, at least in the U.S.
The companies that inspect organic farmers and processors, and certify their products as organic "are paid by those that they certify," he says. "And there is competition among the 'certifiers.' So you can imagine, if the inspection is a little harsh, the company or the farm could say, 'Hey, there are other places I can do business with that wouldn't put me through this kind of rigor.' "
Laufer is convinced that organic fraud is common — but his book doesn't actually uncover much evidence of it.
The beans checked out. Laufer flew to Bolivia, had a nice conversation with the farmer who probably grew them, and came away convinced that those beans were organic.
The walnuts from Kazakhstan, on the other hand, remain a mystery. After that first rancid batch, Laufer never spied any more Kazakh walnuts in the store. The U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated and found no evidence of organic walnut production in Kazakhstan.
A Trader Joe's customer service representative told Laufer that the company buys walnuts from Kazakhstan when it runs out of organic walnuts from California. But a spokesman for the company tells NPR that Trader Joe's never got organic walnuts from Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, yes. But not Kazakhstan.
In their response to Laufer, organic industry executives say that the word "organic" is far more trustworthy than most labels you see on groceries. Unlike "natural," for instance, it really means something.
Organic farmers have rules to follow, and third-party certifiers inspect their operations to make sure they're following the rules. Those certifiers also test a certain percentage of the product each year for illicit use of pesticides. Although certifiers are paid by the companies that they certify, their work is audited by the USDA.
"We have a covenant with our consumers that we have certification that can trace any product from the store shelf back to the field where it was grown," says George Kalogridis, an organic certification officer with Ecocert ICO, an organic certifier that's based in France and operates globally.
According to Kalogridis, many people are suspicious of organic imports because they don't realize how widely the ideas of organic farming have spread — and that those ideas didn't originate in the U.S. in the first place.
Kalogridis has firsthand experience with global organic production. About 30 years ago, he set up an organic produce business in Florida. When sales really took off, in the 1990s, he needed to find more suppliers. "We were, quite literally, running out of product," he says.
So he embarked on a search for more organic farmers, and found some in Mexico and Argentina. Organic missionaries, many of them from Europe — the birthplace of organic farming — had already been traveling the world, spreading the gospel of pesticide-free agriculture. Organic certifiers also were expanding internationally. Together, they provided the foundation for a global boom in international organic trade.
Kalogridis ended up supplying a hungry American market with organic imports of all kinds. "I went from handling half a dozen ingredients to almost 300 ingredients," he says. "People would say, 'Thank you for finding this; can you go find that?' "
USDA investigators have found cases of organic fraud, but they've discovered it here in the U.S., as well as abroad. There's little evidence that fraud is widespread, but USDA, which oversees the organic program, is now putting more resources into preventing it. The budget for the USDA's organic program was boosted by 40 percent this year, and a big chunk of that increase will be devoted to "compliance and enforcement."
In recent years, the USDA has been getting about 200 complaints each year about organic products that somebody suspects really aren't organic. Last year, 19 farmers or food companies were fined a total of $87,000 for misusing the organic label.
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When some food is labeled organic chances are it also comes with a higher price tag. It may leave you wondering what you're paying for, whether what's on the label is true. Lots of organic food is now sold by big companies and comes from every corner of the globe. Enough people are asking questions that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is now putting more money into organic verification. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: George Kalogridis has hoed around a lot of orange trees. He grew up in the citrus business in Florida. In the 1980s he had what he calls his organic epiphany, and started distributing wholesale organic produce. When sales really took off in the 1990s, he realized he needed to find more suppliers.
GEORGE KALOGRIDIS: We were, quite literally, just running out of product.
CHARLES: So he went searching for more organic farmers, and found them in Latin America.
KALOGRIDIS: I primarily was working in Mexico and Argentina at the time to be able to source the ingredients that we needed.
CHARLES: He discovered he could tap into a global organic network. Organic missionaries - many of them from Europe - had been traveling the world, spreading the gospel of farming without pesticides - fertilizing with compost. Organic certifiers were also expanding internationally. These of the companies that can issue a certificate saying this farm's production can be sold as organic. They built the foundation for a global boom in international organic trade.
KALOGRIDIS: I went from handling a half-dozen different ingredients to almost 300 different ingredients. People'd just say, thank you for finding this. Can you go find that?
CHARLES: The U.S. now imports organic soybeans and wheat from China, spices from India, dried fruit from Turkey. And some people wonder what's to keep somebody in that global supply chain from just slapping on an organic label and charging more money? Peter Laufer is one of those skeptics. He's a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.
PETER LAUFER: It just screams to my, perhaps, prejudice, cynical journalist's mind, is there anything wrong with this? This needs some checking.
CHARLES: Two products caught Laufer's attention recently. They showed up in his kitchen - a can of organic black beans from Bolivia and a bag of organic walnuts that turned out to be rancid, labeled product of Kazakhstan. Really, Laufer thought, Kazakhstan?
LAUFER: I've done a lot of work in the former Soviet bloc. And if you look at the corrupt-o-meter, it doesn't get much worse than Kazakhstan.
CHARLES: Bolivia is not much better, he says. So he tried to find out exactly where those products came from. He interrogated store managers, food distributors, also organic certifiers. He had a hard time getting answers, which made him even more suspicious.
LAUFER: Because it seems to me if everything is clean as a whistle then you'd be proud to say where the food came from.
CHARLES: Laufer ended up writing a book which just came out. It's called, "Organic: A Journalist’s Quest To Discover The Truth Behind Food Labeling." He says there are two reasons to distrust the organic label. First, there's that secrecy about suppliers. And second, the certifiers - the companies that check up on organic farmers and processors and certify their products as organic. They have a conflict of interest.
LAUFER: They are paid by those they certify. And there's competition amongst the certifiers and, hence, you certainly can imagine that if the inspection is a little harsh, the company or farm being inspected could easily say hey, you know, there are other places I can do business with that wouldn't put me through this kind of rigor.
CHARLES: Laufer suspects that there is fraud in the system. But his book doesn't actually uncover much evidence of it. The beans checked out. Laufer went to Bolivia, met the farmer who probably grew them and came away convinced those key beans were organic. The walnuts from Kazakhstan are a mystery. After that first bag, Laufer never saw them again in the store. The U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated and found no evidence of organic walnut production in Kazakhstan. The walnuts came from Trader Joe's but Trader Joe's says they never got organic walnuts from Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, yes, but not Kazakhstan. George Kalogridis, the former organic trader, now works for Ecocert ICO - a big organic certifier that's based in France. He says people often are suspicious of organic food from unfamiliar places, but they shouldn't be because the same rules apply in China as in the U.S.
KALOGRIDIS: We have a covenant with our consumers that we have certification that can trace any product from the store shelf back to the field where it was grown.
CHARLES: The certifiers check paperwork at organic farms and processors. They test a certain percentage of the product every year to catch illicit use of pesticides. They are paid by the farmers whom they certify, but they're also audited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Every year, the USDA gets about 200 complaints about products labeled organic that somebody suspects really aren't. In 2013, the USDA cracked down on 19 farmers and food companies. It fined them a total of $87 million for violating organic rules. Cases of fraud have been uncovered abroad but also here in the U.S. Fraud does not appear to be widespread, but it is now getting more attention. The USDA is spending 40 percent more this year on its organic program, and a big chunk of that increase is going into compliance and enforcement. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.