From the organic history book: Carrot fraud, Meryl Streep and organic certification

From the organic history book: Carrot fraud, Meryl Streep and organic certification

Just 30 years ago, the term “organic” wasn’t yet part of the average American’s lexicon. Bob Scowcroft witnessed the organic industry’s growing pains and was a key advocate in the movement. He was a national organizer on pesticide issues for Friends of the Earth before being hired as the first executive director for California Certified Organic Farmers in late 1987. He and the CCOF board founded the Organic Farming Research Foundation in 1990, where he later served as executive director for 20 years. In this three-part series, he recounts some of the watershed moments in the organic movement. Read parts one and two here.

It's 1988, and I have just joined CCOF as its first full-time executive director. The CCOF Board was determined to move from a largely volunteer/farmer-run verification program into a more coordinated, professional organic certification organization. My job was to run it while generating more public support for certified organic products.

A friend who worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council told me (in confidence) that NRDC was going to release a major report the following year identifying 23 suspected carcinogenic pesticides that were being used in agriculture that they thought should be restricted or banned in the marketplace. To amplify their message, they had a spokesperson who was well known and just might capture the national media's attention.

However, they had a problem. There was something of an internal division as to what "solution" they might offer as an alternative to farming with these chemicals. I was told that the spokesperson and some of the staff wanted to offer organic agriculture as the answer. But, in 1988, most other environmental organizations thought that organic production was largely relegated to hobby gardeners and hippies, and little would be gained by promoting it throughout the nation. Plus, there was no real national standard for organic farmers and ranchers to meet.

Yes, we had the 1980 California Organic Health and Safety Code Labeling Law in place, but there was absolutely no enforcement protocol to back it up. Depending upon who one spoke to, there were 26 or 27 other states that had some form of regulations or definitions in place; it was just short of the Wild West out there in the marketplace. And as NRDC moved toward releasing this report, there remained great hesitation to support organic food due to the fallout from the investigation of fraudulent labeling of organic carrots in California.

The great "Carrot Caper" fraud case of 1988

In May 1988, the San Jose Mercury News broke the story of a produce distribution company based in Rainbow, California, that had been repacking conventional carrots into organically labeled bags. The paper even had photos of empty conventional bags on the packing room floor. An uproar ensued, as the organic community was small enough at the time to know that the quantity of product this distributor had available during the season which it was offered made it impossible for these carrots to come from any grower known to be in organic production. It seemed to us that this company had to be shipping hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, of carrots under the organic label.

Initially, no one could identify where the distributor was getting them from. A number of growers and CCOF Board members came to me saying, "we’ve got to stop this, this is clearly fraud." Natural Foods Merchandiser had been writing about fraudulent carrot sales as early as 1984, and several courageous individuals who represented produce distributors spoke out publicly and revealed this type of fraudulent labeling, but eventually it took the leadership of CCOF to lead the charge. We developed a simple, two-pronged strategy: We hired an attorney to go to the Department of Health Services in Sacramento and demand enforcement of the Organic Heath and Safety Code, and we went to the press to share our suspicions and expose the fraud.

Expo West appearance:
Bob Scowcroft presented The People’s History of Organic at Natural Products Expo West 2015.

We hired an attorney named Barry Epstein to try to make the state enforce the law, and I went to a reporter that I trusted, Mitchell Benson at the San Jose Mercury News, with the Carrot Caper story and the photos I had acquired from an anonymous source I have not named to this day. The story generated follow-up stories by the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other, many of which included CCOF's request for enforcement of the state law to protect consumers from mislabeled organic foods. Eventually, the state and federal inspectors visited this distributor, which went out of business.

A Hollywood hero

Almost exactly a year after the Carrot Caper stories were published, in spring 1989, NRDC released its report, Intolerable Risk. The aforementioned spokesperson was Meryl Streep, and for reasons still unclear to me, a related segment on CBS's nightly news show 60 Minutes focused mostly on Alar, a suspected carcinogen used on apples. Overnight, apples and Alar became front-page news. What few organic apples that were available in April sold out. An offshoot of NRDC, Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, founded by Wendy Gordon and Meryl Streep, started a national campaign to ban Alar. But still, there was little talk of alternatives to conventional apple (or any other fruit or vegetable products for that matter)--that is, until Meryl Streep went on the Phil Donahue Show, which was the major talk show of the time.

During the interview about Alar, he asked what Streep's own solution was. She responded that whenever possible, she bought certified organic-labeled products.

Within an hour, it was like a media bomb going off in the CCOF office. Because we were the largest certification group of organic farmers at that time, we were inundated with press calls, TV interview requests and hundreds of requests for our certified organic growers lists. The power of the media, matched with the power of an incredibly articulate celebrity spokesperson, brought organic to the nation's consciousness. Over the next 18 months, CCOF's grower membership list grew from about 170 to almost 800 grower applicants.

The Carrot Caper story and the Mothers and Others campaign led to a series of regional and national conversations, led by organic farmer certification groups, about the need to upgrade organic standards backed by enforcement penalties at both the state and federal levels. In California, a young assemblyman in Sacramento named Sam Farr sponsored the California Organic Foods Act. CCOF also formed an alliance with Oregon Tilth and Washington Tilth to rewrite all three states’ laws as one and the same, so that we could facilitate and grow organic trade between the three states.

A senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, and his staffer Kathleen Merrigan, with support of the Vermont Northeast Organic Farming Association's state chapter, submitted The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to define organic farming practices. Lynn Coody from Oregon Tilth and a newer Congressman in the House, Rep. Peter Defazio, introduced it in the House as well. Both passed.

There's plenty more "organic history" to collect and share! We'll see you and share some more stories at the spring Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim.

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