The organic food market is big business. Nah, that doesn't do it justice. It's HUGE business with food sales in 2019 of $50.1 billion, 4.6 percent higher than 2018. That far outpaced the growth market of total food sales of roughly2 percent.
Pew Research says Americans who focus on eating healthy and nutritious without genetically modified organisms gravitate toward organic foods in droves.
And with all that organic demand has come snake oil salesmen and huskers who falsely label their wares as organic on an unsuspecting public.
The organic scam poster child is Randy Constant who found all the cracks in the organic food system, especially the grains market. Constant carefully tailored the appearance of an upright, honest farmer in Chillicothe, Missouri while selling $140 million worth of non-organic grain as organic.
Amazingly it took longer than a decade for Constant to get caught. In fact the only reason Constant got caught was because organic industry insiders reported his scams.
Truth be told it was easy pickings for Constant. In order to be certified organic plants must be non-GMO, grown without chemical fertilizers or synthetic weed killers and pesticides.
But the system primarily depends on the honesty of organic farmers and private inspectors who are tasked with analyzing organic paperwork looking for fraud. Constant routinely falsified his organic paperwork and inspectors failed catch on.
A favorite Constant ploy was to mix relatively small amounts of inspected organics with far larger amounts of conventional grains and pass off the whole batch as organic (a technique organic industry folk call “salting”).
It's not surprising the feds were asleep. A decade ago the USDA's Office of Inspector General eviscerated organic food oversight inspection, finding complaints either mostly ignored or taking years to resolve. The USDA IG also reported inspectors ignored laws requiring crops purported to be organic to be routinely tested for chemical residues.
And if that ain't enough millions of pounds of fake organics are pouring into the US annually.
In a nutshell, the inspection system stinks to high heaven.
Now there's a chance to right some of these wrongs. Last month USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service published a proposed rule in the Federal Register looking to improve organic integrity. The National Organic Program; Strengthening Organic Enforcement rule aims to provide greater certainty for consumers that when a product says it's organic it actually is organic.
The rule requires agents to perform a minimum number of unannounced on-site inspections annually and firms up calculation of organic ingredients which are part of multi-ingredient products. And the rule requires National Organic Program certification for imported organic food as well.
The rules are the product of recommendations from organic industry participants including the Organic Trade Association and the Cornucopia Institute as well as the feds.
After decades of federal mismanagement this is certainly a step in the right direction. Will it guarantee consumers get the organics they pay for? Probably not. But as a first bite on an organic apple it's far better than the hot mess consumers are currently living with.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for the Midwest Center covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.