Monday, December 26, 2011

USDA organic: What does it really mean?

I'm very interested in where my food comes from, and I'm very interested in how it gets produced.  In fact, I'm so interested that I started farming mostly as a reaction to the anonymity of the food that most of the US consumers eat. 
But I'm pretty extreme -- not everyone starts their own farms to eat better.  Most people who are concerned about animal welfare use the words on the packaged food to inform them about their food, and that's a good thing.  Informed choice driving your purchases is how you can make a direct change to our food industry. 

One of the most widespread types of certification is that offered by the USDA, specifically the USDA Organic Certification process. 

   I'm not going to go into the details of how you get certified, or talk to you about what the standards are, or whether they're worthwhile, or even if it's been co-opted by industry.  Those are all valid topics but I'm going to focus on one thing here: 

Whatever the standards are, I think it's very important that people actually follow them

If you promise me that you're certified organic I, and every other customer of yours, have every reason to expect you to follow the guidelines and maintain the standards. 

Doubts about the USDA Organic certification

The primary problem that I've had with the USDA Organic label is that they have had several instances where food producers have not followed the standards of production, the USDA has been put on notice that they have not, and it has taken YEARS in some cases for any action to be taken.

Let me repeat:  Known violations, claims that the products are organic, no consequence to the producers. 

Typically food that is labeled organic is sold at a higher price than food that is not, so there's actually an economic advantage to be had by labeling food that is produced non-organically as organic.  This has shown up at farmers markets, for instance, where vendors have been buying conventionally produced produce and selling it as local, organic produce, and pocketing the difference. 

This was the case with an Oregon man, Harold Chase, who made more than $450,000 selling corn that he claimed was organic, which turned out to be conventionally raised corn.  This corn was used to produce "organic" animal feed and products.   That $450,000 he made was the markup that organic corn is given over conventional corn -- it's pure profit.   When you can make that kind of money in a relatively low-profit business like farming, you'll see more of this.  The economic incentive is just too big.

Our food system is made up of a whole chain of people, and when any link on that chain is compromised it makes the efforts of everyone else worthless.

Lets imagine that everything along the whole chain went right.  The food was produced organically, it was correctly harvested, it was shipped and stored correctly, and it arrived into the back of your local supermarket in perfect shape. 

It can get messed up right before you buy it.  Here's an example of organic produce being mixed with conventional, in violation of the USDA Organics rules.  Yes, it might seem that stacking organic and non-organic vegetables next to one another is no big deal, but again

If you claim organic certification, I expect you to follow the rules

My single largest complaint about the USDA Organics program is that the enforcement of the rules and the investigation of the violations isn't effective enough to give me any confidence that the standards are being upheld at any point in the supply chain.

Here's what you can do to help

The easiest place to start is going to be at farmers markets.  I'd like you to take the time to ask the vendors about their farms and their practices -- specifically, if they're certified USDA organic.    If you notice a vendor that seems a little vague about their product practices, talk to the manager at the market about your concerns, and take the time to report your concerns to the USDA. 

Yes, you may report people who are indeed organic,  but it's also true that this sort of report is often the ONLY way that the violators are caught.   Error on the side of caution.  Expect that they follow the rules. 

Report suspected USDA Organic violations


Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Good post Bruce, we were certified organic for many years BEFORE the USDA was involved. A third party agency did the certifying and verification, the rules were much more stringent and hard to get around if you were inclined to cheat. Now it's easy to cheat. Personally I don't believe many organic labels these days.

The most popular way to cheat consumers now, especially via CSA's and farmers markets is to say you "use organic methods," consumers are OK with that and don't really want to investigate on pesticide uptake issues or how clean or contaminated a farm's soils are from past farming practices. Caveat emptor.

Oregon Tilth was an excellent certifying agency, so good that I know several people who had their products certified by the State of Washington instead because WA was not so stringent. Hmmm, makes you wonder what they were hiding.

Bruce King said...

Thank you, Matron. I really struggled with some way to make the situation better, and I'm open to ideas on how to strengthen the enforcement. Reporting is the first part, investigation of the complaints and enforcement of the violations is the next part.

But I'm open to hearing suggestions or ideas on this.

Joanne said...

Matron, I have to take issue with your position that claiming to use organic methods is a way to cheat consumers. It's no more a way than claiming organic certification is. And last I checked (the regs may have changed in the past few months) if a farm is below a certain threshold, the management can claim to be organic whether they are certified or not.

A great many farms either don't have the resources to become certified or they don't have faith in the certification system. I fit into both of those categories. So people like myself, who use organic methods (to a greater or lesser degree) tell people that. An honest grower will also explain which methods they use that are organic and which are conventional and why they use conventional (or reserve the right to use conventional) methods.

Sure some people cheat. There are people who cheat who are 'certified' organic as well. Just because a person can't spend thousands of dollars and go through a 3 year process doesn't necessarily mean they're cheating the consumers.

And I do agree with Matron on the article. The issues you put forth are some of the main issues why I won't become certified.