Unlike "natural" or even "cruelty free" an organic label actually stands for something. Products donning an organic certification are produced without pesticides and cannot be irradiated to kill pathogens. At least, that's what I thought. Two recent news items are shaking the label's credibility.
First up, earlier this month a Springfield, Ore., man pled guilty to wire fraud for selling more than 4.2 million pounds of corn falsely labeled as organic. Much of the corn was purchased by Oregon companies as organic feed for livestock, according to a release. By falsely labeling his corn, the man was able to double his profits. By getting caught, he'll pay more on the back end—up to 20 years in a prison and a $250,000 fine.
In a time of economic uncertainity and this year's sharp decline in corn prices, I can sympathize with his motivations. Still, the situation amplifies the need for more sophisticated traceablity programs in the U.S. Until then, food producers must ask suppliers questions. Discuss the organic certification process, ask how long a farmer's been certified and how often the farm is inspected. With corn or any other genitically modified crop, producers may also ask about threats of cross pollination. Retailers, you can pose these same questions to your meat and dairy suppliers. In all cases, if you can't get the information your want, delve depper or look for another source.
Overseas 'organic' labels to watch
Next, and perhaps even more troubling, is a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture warning of five fraudulent organic certifications currently circulating the U.S. marketplace. Not surprisingly, the labels come from overseas countries with "lenient" (if any) organic standards. Natural products retailers, if you're stocking any "organic" items that fall into the following categories, do some research:
- Berries from Russia
- Coffee, tea and several vegetables from China (two certificates)
- Peppers and tomatoes from the Dominican Republic
- Honey, spices and other items from Kuwait
For more info, check out these additional details from Sustainable Food News. If you find that you carry any of these items, you may be able to help with the NOPs investigation. Contact its Compliance & Enforcement Division.
And to keep from being duped by false organic labels down the road, questioning is key. Retailers should ask distributors about unfamiliar certifications. If they don't have an answer, do some research online. False organic labels don't only hurt the credibility of USDA's NOP certification, but stocking such products can also damage your store's reputation.