Fraud among producers portraying products of chemical intensive agriculture as organic –including those recently identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) National Organic Program (NOP)— is costly to organic producers and consumers. Imported grains –corn and soybeans that are largely fed to livestock whose products are sold as “organic”— are the focus of claims that USDA is not doing enough to protect the integrity of the organic label.
The fraudulent documents that are the subject of the USDA alert are typically produced with the intent to circumvent U.S. organic regulations and are often forged along the supply chain with the goal of increasing the value of agricultural commodities imported to the United States. The arrival of soy and corn crops labeled as organic but later testing positive for residues of pesticides prohibited in organic production, has been well documented in recent years. USDA encourages certifying agents and organic operators to remain vigilant when purchasing organic products from suppliers, and warns of fines for up to $11,000 for anyone found in violation of selling products fraudulently labeled as organic. Additionally, the agency encourages anyone suspecting a violation has been committed to make a claim reporting the instance to the NOP Compliance and Enforcement Division.
An investigative article published in the Washington Post earlier this month put the spotlight on this issue by focusing on the importation of corn and soybean shipments labeled as “organic” that later tested positive for pesticides. The article chronicled the shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans that were shipped to California by way of Ukraine and Turkey in late 2016 and underwent a lucrative transformation during their journey. Starting out in Ukraine as conventionally grown soybeans, by the time the load made its way to a California port they had been labeled as “USDA Organic,” increasing the value of the shipment by nearly $4 million. Receipts, invoices and other shipping records supported the organic designation, though the broker for the soybeans later made a statement admitting that they may have been “provided with false certification documents,” according to the Post.
This was not an isolated incident, and the frequency of complaints related to fraudulent certificates of organic products has grabbed the attention of groups with an interest in maintaining the integrity of the organic label. The Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), an organization that “coordinates the efforts of producer marketing groups to benefit and sustain organic producers,” has been very vocal on the issue of false representation of commodities. Last fall, OFARM joined with Food and Water Watch (FWW) to urge the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) “to investigate the integrity of imported organic grains.” Their letter, which cites concerns over the potential for “fraudulent organic imports to undermine consumer expectations and the market for domestic organic producers,” asks the OIG to examine several issues related to the importation of organic goods, including whether the “increased imports present an opportunity for fraudulently labeled organic products to enter the United States,” given the more complicated supply chains, as well as whether organic imports undermine “the opportunity for U.S. producers to get a fair price in the market.” The full letter to OIG, sent September 1, 2016, can be found here.
In response to the Washington Post article, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents a broad spectrum of organic businesses, also expressed concerns over the mislabeling or organic soy and corn and called on the USDA and NOP to “thoroughly and immediately complete investigations” related to the imports in question. In its press release on the subject, OTA also declared that the “oversight of foreign organic suppliers and the enforcement of organic standards must be rigorous and robust” in order to maintain the integrity of the USDA organic label.