Organic stakeholders betrayed: Reinventing
USDA organic oversight
NOTE: The fraud exposed by The New Yorker is not so much about the state of organic food and agriculture as it is about the federal government and its captured regulatory processes. Captured by the criminal BigAg corporations that in their own ways are at the heart of the CV-19 health crisis.
BigAg does not want to and cannot compete with organic agriculture in a truly free market.
Hello Supporters of Food Justice,
This is not a fundraising email.
This is an all hands on deck emergency email. (Although I do hope you will consider including OrganicEye in your contributions on Giving Tuesday—November 30).
The recent story in The New Yorker, “The Great Organic Food Fraud,” gives organic another black eye, thanks to abysmal oversight of organic certification by USDA, whose agency-wide programs are dominated by those serving “conventional” chemical-intensive agriculture—just as the membership of our industry’s largest lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, now represents mostly corporate agribusinesses, primarily marketing “conventional” products.
I sadly knew the story, about millions of dollars in fraudulent laundering of conventional crops as organic, was coming because the reporter had called to talk to me since I had worked a bit with the DOJ on this case.
It’s imperative that we continue to fight to change the attitude at the USDA. Unless we succeed, there is no safe haven. Even for those of us like me, who are lucky enough to buy local food directly from farmers, there is much in my pantry that requires me to have trust in the organic label (Brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, grains, not to mention fresh organic produce in the winter).
We need to convince President Biden and USDA Secretary Vilsack to do a 180°, switching from business as usual. Since Congress gave the USDA the responsibility to oversee organics in 1990, the agency has failed to recognize the voices of nonprofit, public interest groups that have monitored the organic regulations for decades, listening to lobbyists representing corporate agribusiness instead.
Right now, lobbyists for major agribusinesses, and their front group, the Organic Trade Association, are, de facto, calling the shots at USDA.
Why are we still fighting?
Because other than local direct marketers, there’s no viable alternative to a creditable organic program for farmers and eaters alike.
During my over 30-year involvement in the organic movement, the last 18 acting as an industry watchdog, I have never witnessed any systemic cheating by local farmers. If you go to the farmers market and look them in the eye, or invest in a CSA share, in addition to USDA certification, you have an individual family vouching for the authenticity of your food. But we need the USDA seal when we buy rice, millet, quinoa, or a myriad of other items that are rarely grown locally in most of the US.
Who owns the organic label? We all do!
I’m sad to report that, as I write this, there are 135 farmers in the Northeast (including in New York, Maine, and Vermont) who are being terminated by their milk handlers, predominately Danone which owns the Horizon label. There is an industry shift to “factory farms”—some milking thousands of cows each. That’s not organic!
If we can’t tell the difference between an animal that was raised on a truly organic farm, allowed to exhibit their natural instinctive behavior, and one confined on an “organic” factory farm in the desert, or know if our tofu or the black beans for our enchiladas are sourced from China or former Soviet bloc countries, US farmers and eaters all lose.Please join with me at OrganicEye in the fight for food justice.
Please forward this and our other emails to your friends and family who care about organics. And follow us on Facebook to get the latest news.
Although we will be continuing our fight to save the meaning behind the organic label on all fronts (investigations, oversight of USDA’s National Organic Program/National Organic Standards Board, filing lawsuits against companies abusing consumer trust, and more), there are two major macro issues that we will be concentrating our efforts on in 2022:
1. Reinventing Organic Certification to Snare Criminals in the Act
The recent disturbing story in The New Yorker basically confirms what OrganicEye has been megaphoning: the current certification scheme overseen by USDA is irreparably broken. It doesn’t need tweaking. It needs a major overhaul to address corporate control, industrial-scale agricultural production (mirroring the environmental and animal welfare horrors of conventional), and corruption that was not envisioned when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990.
Right now, certifiers are dealing with a shortage of inspectors and, historically, too many have had no experience in production agriculture or forensic accounting. Recent college graduates going through a brief training to be inspectors just can’t operate on a par with the veteran agriculturalists perpetrating fraud. It’s just too easy to cheat.
OrganicEye’s suggestion is to do away with annual inspections for any farmer or modest-scale business that earns the right through consistently exemplary compliance, and shift to a much more comprehensive audit every five years, conducted by seasoned professionals. Those regular inspections would be coupled with an aggressively ramped-up program of unannounced audits by both certifiers and federal personnel. This new approach should be revenue/expense neutral.
Heck, the IRS does not audit every single taxpayer every single year. They target their resources—and that’s what USDA should be doing, too.
2. Pressuring USDA to Discount Voices of Corporate Agribusiness Lobbyists
Since the inception of the organic program at USDA, lobbyists for the Organic Trade Association have had an outsized influence on rulemaking and enforcement (or, as illustrated by The New Yorker, lack thereof). Their members operate livestock factories (dairy, egg, and meat production) and giant industrial indoor hydroponic “farms” supplying nutrients to plants virtually exclusively with liquid fertilizers (commonly made from hydrolyzed conventional soybean meal).
Our current campaign is designed to persuade President Biden and USDA Secretary Vilsack to elevate the voices of farmers, consumers, and the nonprofits that have represented them by overseeing organics for the past two decades. Right now, the OTA trumps us all. And they have sold out our values to build the $60 billion a year industry.If you haven’t yet signed and returned your proxy letter to President Biden and Secretary Vilsack, please consider doing so: tinyurl.com/2nxpupdc
In the meantime, we can all protect our families by being careful shoppers and flexing our muscles in the marketplace by rewarding the true heroes in the organic industry and sending a strong message to the bad actors.
Our most important tactic is empowering consumers and wholesale buyers to make good, discerning decisions. We all control the ultimate revenue stream of these businesses. They all want our money. Our continuing Kastel’s Kitchen video series is designed to help in choosing the very best food for our families and maximizing the pressure each of us can exert in the marketplace.Please empower yourself by viewing new episodes or visiting www.organiceye.org and clicking on “Resources” to view past Kastel’s Kitchen broadcasts on:
Avoiding dangerous additives (some even carcinogenic) in organic food. Yes, there can be some really dangerous ingredients in organic food!Selecting the safest and most nutritious organic produce—year-round.
Avoiding fraud by selecting the best, highest-integrity brand names in organics.Finding the finest yogurts in terms of quality, safety, and nutrition.
Not all organic brands are created equal. I profile brands using milk from family farms and cows that graze, as opposed to factory dairies, as well as those that shun additives. I will send a more comprehensive report by mail on these and other issues to our members and longtime followers next month.Be well/stay safe!Mark A. Kastel, Director