Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Large imports of food labeled 'organic' have turned out not to be organic; part of a weak system

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A recent shipment from Europe to the U.S. of 36 million pounds of soybeans magically went from being labeled and priced as ordinary soybeans, to being labeled organic, which boosted their value by approximately $4 million, Peter Whoriskey reports for The Washington Post, saying it exposes major holes in the way the U.S. ensures that foods labeled "organic" actually are. One problem is that at least half of organic commodities in the U.S. come from overseas, from as many as 100 countries.

"After being contacted by The Post, the broker for the soybeans, Global Natural, emailed a statement saying it may have been 'provided with false certification documents' regarding some grain shipments from Eastern Europe," Whoriskey writes. "About 21 million pounds of the soybeans have already been distributed to customers."

That shipment, plus two others, "each involving millions of pounds of 'organic” corn or soybeans, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities," Whoriskey reports. "All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary. And all three hailed from Turkey, now one of the largest exporters of organic products to the U.S., according to Foreign Agricultural Service statistics."

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, "a company importing an organic product must verify that it has come from a supplier that has a 'USDA Organic' certificate," Whoriskey writes. "It must keep receipts and invoices. But it need not trace the product back to the farm. Some importers, aware of the possibility of fraud, request extra documentation. But others do not."

"Regardless of where organics come from, critics say, the system suffers from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception rather than the rule," Whoriskey reports. "These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported products, which often involve more middlemen, each of whom could profit by relabeling conventional goods as 'organic.' The temptation could be substantial, too: Products with a 'USDA Organic' label routinely sell for twice the price of their conventional counterparts."

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