When we shop in a store looking for organic food we want to know that a USDA organic label certifies that the products we are purchasing and putting in our bodies is truly organic and has met the USDA standards. Apparently the USDA has not been doing as careful a job as we would like in protecting that standard. A Washington Post article written by Peter Whoriskey documents how imported products like soybeans and corn of dubious origination are sold originally to middlemen as conventional products at conventional prices, but in the ensuing paperwork process somehow become elevated to the “organic” level with the concomitant jump in price that rewards the fraudulent activity. Unfortunately, our bodies and health are the victims of this scam.
While a lot of our “USDA Organic” food is grown in this country, a significant proportion (like 50%) of corn, soybeans, and coffee come from overseas from as many as 100 different countries. In recent years, the amount of organic corn and soybeans imported into the U.S. has more than tripled. The USDA has not issued any major sanctions for the import of fraudulent grain. John Bobbe, Executive Director of the Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing or FARM states: “The U.S. market is the easiest for potentially fraudulent organic products to penetrate because the chances of getting caught are not very high.” He goes on to say that: “Europe and Canada, have much stricter import rules.” What is worse is that when the USDA has responded to complaints of questionable imports, their action has come too late to prevent the products illegal distribution. When a shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans of dubious origin labeled “Certified Organic” showed up in Stockton, California, the USDA was informed, but took action so late that 21 million pounds of the 36 million had already been distributed to customers.
Products from China are a worse example. As Chenglin Liu, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, says, “In China, farmers have trouble following their own laws. How can Americans expect Chinese farmers to follow U.S. organic rules?”
The farmers in China seeking USDA organic certification hire their own inspection agencies to certify that they meet U.S. organic rules. When the Washington Post asked to examine the results of the government inspection agencies testing for pesticide residue, the results showed very high levels of pesticide residue in some “Certified Organic” Chinese products. A German agency in China that tests these products for pesticide residue labeled the results “quite shocking” when it became clear that 37% showed more than trace elements of pesticide residue.
In recent years, the United States has seen large spikes in the amount of “organic” corn and soybeans entering this country from Turkey. According to the USDA, between 2014 and 2016 the amount of organic corn arriving from Turkey rose from 15,000 metric tons to more than 399,000 metric tons (an increase of over 2,600%) while organic soybeans coming from Turkey rose from 14,000 metric tons to 165,000 metric tons — a nearly 1,200% increase. It is hard to imagine how organic cultivation in these foreign countries could jump so dramatically and so quickly given the fact that it can take three years for conventional land to be converted into organic land. As Miles McEvoy, chief of the USDA’s organic program said when speaking to a group of U.S. organic farmers, “Where did all this big production come from? Where are did all these organic farmers come from?”
When the Washington Post examined all of the documentation surrounding some of these questionable imports, they found the following:
- There was a shipment of soybeans from Ukraine and Turkey that arrived at a Stockton, California port in 2016. The health certificates and associated receipts accompanying the shipment indicate that the soybeans were not organic. For one, they were fumigated with tablets of aluminum phosphide, a pesticide prohibited under organic regulations. The origination company does not produce organic soybeans and did not sell or label them as organic. The original price was a conventional non-organic price of $360 per ton. By the time they reached the United States the price had jumped 66% or reaching $600 per ton.
- Another shipment of 46 million pounds of “Certified Organic” corn that sailed from Romania to Turkey and then to Baltimore from a company called Belor was not originally certified organic and was sold originally at conventional prices according to the receipts attached. By the time the Romanian corn reached the United States, it was labeled “USDA Certified Organic” and its price had jumped 72%.
This is the kind of troubling history that is unsettling to the U.S. consumer. If we cannot rely on our own government to protect us, who can we rely on?
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Paul V. Profeta co-founded Profeta Farms with his wife, certified Integrative Nutrition Coach, Joanne Malino and organic farmer John Place. After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Business School, Paul created a very successful real estate investment company. Concomitantly, he taught and published at Harvard Business School, created the Real Estate Investment Department at Columbia Business School, and most recently endowed the Chaired Professorship of Real Estate at Rutgers Business School resulting in the creation of the Rutgers Center for Real Estate. As a successful athlete in high school and college, Profeta was always interested in health, nutrition, and alternative medicine. Eventually, he decided that America has to change the way it feeds itself. Industrialized food processors shipping food across the country creating a large carbon footprint and offering “food products” with known contaminants and questionable ingredients was not the answer. He has created Profeta Farms, LLC as a template for the way America should feed itself… local, sustainable, certified organic farms featuring integrity and transparency, using the environment in a sustainable and responsible fashion while treating animals humanely so that local shoppers can “know their farmer” and personally check on the farmers methods and ingredients.