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Lack Of USDA Oversight On Organics Portends Bigger Problems For
Conventional Produce

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 8, 2007

A commentary in the Northwest Indiana Times titled Blowing the whistle on sham organics focuses on the unwillingness or inability of the USDA to do very much about allegations that various products are falsely being sold as organic.

Part of the issue is that various organic advocates want the organic laws to read in ways they do not, and thus blame the USDA for not enforcing standards where no standards exist. This is particularly true when you get beyond the issue of no synthetic pesticides and into very subjective areas such as animal treatment.

But another aspect is that organic certification is handled by independent certifying agencies, not the USDA:

… China has four times the amount of land in organic food production than does the U.S. China’s organic exports, growing at a rate of 50 percent annually, now total upwards of $200 million. While most of the exports enter European markets, a significant and growing portion are reaching American dinner tables. Yet a USDA economist acknowledged China is probably too polluted to grow truly organic food.

A Dallas Morning News investigation disclosed the discovery by a Japanese inspector of an empty herbicide bag on an “organic” soybean field in China.

Could soy from this field enter the U.S. market? Absolutely. The USDA says it would not look behind the claim that the herbicide bag was carried by the wind onto the farm. Rather, it relies on organic certifiers to make the call.

This commentator goes on to attack USDA performance:

perhaps the USDA is asleep at the wheel. More generously, they are overworked, understaffed and underfunded. The USDA’s National Organic Program, still in its infancy, is unable to keep up with the galloping market growth. Last year, the Dallas Morning News revealed the USDA has no idea to what degree organic standards are being violated. That’s no wonder, as the agency has been nonchalant about following up on leads into potential misbehavior.

Much of this article misses the mark as it confuses “fraud” — marketing and labeling foods as organic when they have not been so certified — with simply not doing things that many think are intrinsic to being organic. It also takes at face value allegations against Wal-Mart and others without looking at the other side.

What is thought-provoking is this: In light of United Fresh’s call for government regulation, if the USDA doesn’t have sufficient staff to verify compliance in the tiny organic industry, do we have any reason to think it would ever be able to do the task in the giant conventional produce industry?

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