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Forgery and Fraud: The Truth Behind Fake Organics

by Ivory King

Demand for organic produce and other products is growing every year. This demand translates to better opportunities for farmers and manufacturers, with higher profits and better standards of living due to the environmental benefits. But since organic fetches a higher price, there’s more of an incentive for people to sell cheaper products for the organic price. Unfortunately that can take a toll on our health and our kids’ health, especially when we see that conventional baby products contain such undesirable materials such as phthalates in vinyl toys or petroleum in baby oil.

According to the USDA, falsely representing products as certified organic is a violation punishable by fines of up to $11,000. Anyone can submit a complaint to the National Organic Program Compliance and Enforcement Division, but how would you even know to complain? It turns out that when there’s organic fraud, most of the burden has fallen on the countries where these crops are grown.

The Too Many Pineapples Problem

Prices for organic produce are quite a premium on conventional, and the difference becomes even more pronounced with animal products. According to USDA collected data on advertised groceries, Fuji apples in November 2017 were $1.47 per pound and organic was 56 cents more, or strawberries were $2.63 per package and organic was $2.36 more. Milk can be more than twice the price, and chicken nearly triple.

Interestingly enough, the fake organics have been reported just from the produce section: imported pineapples, corn and soybeans. The pineapples came from Costa Rica and were reported in NerdWallet in December 2017. While the NOP noticed that the country was shipping more organic pineapples to the US than it was certified to grow, the Costa Rican government dispatched an investigator and showed that the local certifier improperly approved one grower. According to the report, certifiers get paid by the growers, collecting a percentage of sales in what amounts to an incentive for fraud. This conflict of interest continues in that part of the supply chain, with certifiers also responsible for investigating fraud.

Pineapples in a basket, photo by Kotagauni Srinivas

While the certification process is obviously not without faults, at least it’s operating according to specific guidelines when it comes to fruits and vegetables. But where things get even more confusing is with meat, eggs and dairy. Does organic only apply to animal feed and no hormones or antibiotics? People concerned with animal welfare expect some guidelines for factory farm practices, but these seem up for debate. USDA organic guidelines require certified organic eggs to come from hens that can wander freely about their houses and have access to the outdoors. In a lawsuit filed against Walmart, the farm in question took the form of industrial sized buildings with enclosed concrete porches.

Organic Processed Food Is Still Processed Food

It is becoming more common knowledge that certain words don’t mean anything when they’re seen on a product label. “Natural” and “clean” are just a couple of these words, and they don’t have anything to do with how healthy a product is. But since “organic” does mean something to consumers, as it should, it’s also bearing the burden of assumptions about a product that just aren’t true.

With the increased popularity of organic products, that word is showing up in a wider variety of settings than it ever has. There’s organic ice cream, organic potato chips, and yes, even organic Doritos. While the argument could be made that these products are better than their conventional counterparts, that doesn’t mean that anyone should eat them instead of whole food based meals, or expect to lose weight. It could even conceivably have higher sugar, sodium or fat levels than its “regular” version. Is it tempting? Sure. But the only way to eat healthier processed food is to eat less processed food.

organic junk food - still junk food!

Buy From Those You Trust

Organic labeling is most effective when the grower, certifier and seller are less of a distributed system, but globalization has made that a rare thing. But there are ways to increase the credibility of the food that you buy, such as buying locally from greenmarkets, or at least buying US produce if you’re at the supermarket. Buying fair trade always helps, as sourcing relationships are more transparent and trace to specific farms or manufacturers. The health and environmental benefits from buying organic are worth the trouble, and supporting organic producers is better for everyone.

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Forgery and Fraud: The Truth Behind Fake Organics

y Ivory King Demand for organic produce and other products is growing every year. This demand translates to better opportunities for farmers and manufacturers, with higher profits and better standard
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