Tom Chapman, chief executive of the Organic Trade Association, said the updates were “the biggest improvement to the organic standards since they were published in 1990”. They have a long way to go to strengthen trust in the “organic” label, Chapman said, noting that the move “raises the bar to prevent bad actors at any point in the supply chain.”
Millions of pounds worth of fake ‘organic’ cereal convinces food industry it could be a problem
Chapman’s business association, which represents about 10,000 growers in the United States, has been pushing for tougher rules for years, in part motivated. In 2017, a series of stories in The Washington Post revealed that fake “organic” foods are a widespread problem in the food industry.
However, problems with organic fraud persist. This month, the Justice Department announced indictments against individuals who allegedly masterminded a multimillion-dollar scheme to sell non-organic soybeans from Eastern Europe to the United States as certified organic. They were able to charge 50 percent more for “organic” grain than conventional grain, the department said.
And this week, two Minnesota farmers were indicted in connection with a scheme to sell more than $46 million in chemically treated produce as organic between 2014 and 2021.
USDA officials said organic food is protected against adulteration. Congress decided they needed help.
“When violators cheat the system, it casts doubt on the integrity of the organic label and jeopardizes the future of the industry as a whole,” he said. “As a long-time organic farmer, I know how expensive and time-consuming it is to meet the standards required to obtain a USDA-certified organic label.”
Government standards require that produce labeled organic be produced without toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other exempt practices, sewage sludge, or radiation. That’s a high bar that many farms using more natural practices don’t even meet.
U.S. organic food sales have more than doubled in the past 10 years, rising a record 12.4 percent to $61.9 billion in 2020, as consumers become more concerned about eating healthy foods, according to the Organic Trade Association. Experts predict that the category will continue to grow. Although some consumers view the word “organic” as synonymous with “healthy,” the science on whether organic foods are healthier is mixed, and many studies show only small increases in some nutrients.
In the supply chain, organic food producers have long struggled as the industry grows and large producers source their ingredients from overseas, where it is more difficult to verify that they meet standards. US organic farmers complain that allowing companies to market these products as “organic” creates an uneven playing field and undermines trust in the label.
Major updates to the rules include requiring certification of more businesses, such as brokers and traders, in critical links in organic supply chains. It also requires organic certifications for all organic imports and increases inspections and reporting requirements certified transactions.
“Protecting and growing the organic sector and the trusted USDA organic seal is a key part of USDA’s Transforming Food Systems initiative,” said Jenny Lester Moffitt, marketing and regulatory program advisor. He added that “this success is yet another demonstration that the USDA stands fully behind the organic brand.”
The organic food industry is booming, and that could be bad for consumers
Some food industry organizations say they are not yet sure how hard the new rule will be on members. Others already say the new rule doesn’t go far enough to root out fraud.
“I’m very concerned that everyone is going to declare victory and go home,” said Mark Castel, founder of the advocacy group OrganicEye.
Kastel said the agency was “dragging its feet” on organics by taking 12 years to come forward Regulations since Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. It points to a long-running debate over whether large-scale dairies in the West adhere sufficiently to standards for how organically raised animals are treated. These dairies now produce the majority of milk labeled organic.
Castel said the violation of standards, including giving cows time to graze outdoors, “is a betrayal of the values that justify consumers paying higher prices for organic dairy products.”
The new rules come into effect in March, and affected companies will have a year to comply with the changes.