Several lawmakers just introduced a bill that would nearly triple the budget for the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP), the federal agency in charge of overseeing the U.S. organic market. But before we hand over more tax dollars to this feckless bureaucracy, Congress should demand hearings about NOP's complicity in what might be the biggest consumer scam in decades: the sale of phony organic food.
Last month, the USDA's inspector general released a shocking report detailing widespread fraud throughout the global organic-food supply chain and noting the failure of federal officials to ensure the integrity of the organic market in the U.S. The report is proof that millions of consumers have been — and are still being — duped, buying pricier "organic" products that do not meet federal organic standards. It is very likely that organic companies (and the advocacy groups they support) ignored this fraud so they could continue charging higher prices for food labeled organic. Many organic executives are Democratic donors and fundraisers, so consumers also have a right to know whether the Obama administration overlooked this systemwide consumer fraud to protect its pals in the organic industry.
Organic imports have exploded over the past decade to keep pace with consumer demand. The U.S. is a net importer of organic goods, from coffee to feed grains such as corn and soybeans. At the same time, organic brands are rolling in the dough, misleading consumers to believe their products are "local" and healthier than non-organic options. None of it is true. Furthermore, the inspector general's report warns that "U.S. consumers of organic products have reduced assurance that foreign agricultural products maintain their organic integrity from farm to table," which should outrage anyone who is a regular buyer of organic food.
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Investigators discovered that imported organic shipments often did not have the proper certification, and that NOP officials were "unable to provide reasonable assurance that imported products labeled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms and businesses that produce and sell organic products." This is at the core of the potential fraud: "There is no definitive test to identify whether a product is organic or not," Jayson Lusk, head of Purdue University's agricultural-economics department, told me. "Organic is primarily a certification of processes. To the extent consumers value these processes, trust in the certification system is key to the integrity of organic."