Author Mara Schiavetti
A recent series of articles by a Washington Post reporter could have some consumers questioning the value of the USDA organic seal.
Consumers are all for cracking down on the fraudulent few who, with the help of Big Food, big retail chains and questionable certifiers give organics a bad name. But they also want stronger standards, and better enforcement—not a plan to weaken standards to accommodate "Factory Farm Organic."
The Washington Post exposed a couple of companies, certified organic, that don’t strictly adhere to organic standards. The Post and others also recently reported on what one lawmaker, who serves on a key U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) committee, called “uncertainty and dysfunction” at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).
All these reports are troubling on multiple levels, especially to consumers who rely on the USDA organic seal to help them avoid pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic ingredients and foods produced using methods that degenerate soil health and pollute the environment. (It's important to note that none of these reports address the biggest marketing and labeling fraud of them all—products sold as "natural," "all natural" and "100% natural," a $90-billion industry that eclipses the $50-billion certified organic industry).
What can consumers do to ensure that the certified organic products they buy meet existing organic standards? And how do we, as consumers, fight back against efforts to weaken those standards?
The short answers: One, there are about 25,000 honest organic local and regional producers, vs. a handful of big brands, mostly national, who flout the rules. (Most "Factory Farm Organic" companies sell their products, and provide private-label products, for big retail chains like Costco, Walmart, Safeway, Albertson’s, Kroger’s and others).
Two, if consumers want stronger, not weaker organic standards, we need to demand them.
Bad actors hurt consumers and legitimate organic producers
Over the past several months, the Washington Post has reported the following:
• Eggland’s Best eggs, marketed as certified organic by Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, come from hens that never go outside. (Even before the Post’s expose, OCA had called for a boycott of Eggland’s Best eggs).
• Aurora Organic Dairy, which supplies organic milk to Walmart, Costco and other major retailers, doesn’t adhere to organic standards that require cows to be outdoors daily during the growing season. (OCA, Cornucopia Institute and other groups have been demanding better policing of Aurora Dairy for more than a decade).
• Some “organic” soy and corn imports aren’t actually organic.
• Some “organic” foods contain a synthetic oil brewed in industrial vats of algae.
Stories like these erode consumer confidence in the organic seal. When consumers give up on organic, legitimate organic farmers and producers lose sales, too.
But that’s only the part of the problem. By cutting corners on organic standards, big producers can sell at lower prices—that puts the smaller, local and regional organic producers who don’t have big contracts with big retailers, and who must charge more because they actually follow organic standards to letter, at a competitive disadvantage in the market.
In some cases, it puts them out of business.
The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey recently interviewed Amish organic dairy farmers who are struggling to compete against companies like Aurora, which the farmers say, don’t deserve the organic label. The Post reported:
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