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Home > Organic Trade Association Responds to "The Great Organic-Food Fraud"

Organic Trade Association Responds to "The Great Organic-Food Fraud"

Just the Facts, Please

In his November 8, 2021 article, “The Great Organic-Food Fraud,” Ian Parker makes a bold and unfounded claim: “the real difference...between a ton of organic soybeans and a ton of conventional soybeans is the story you can tell about them.” Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. They shape and color every part of our lives, including our food system, what we eat, and why we choose to eat it. In the organic sector, we love telling the stories of our farmers, makers, and products – but what we love even more are the facts. When a story gets the facts wrong, the potential for it to influence and harm is immense.  As a great author once said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.”

In retelling the life and crimes of Mr. Randy Constant, who did in fact perpetuate the largest-scale organic fraud scheme in the United States, Parker consistently neglects the facts for the sake of an exciting story. He starts with the claim, “there’s no way to confirm that a crop was grown organically.” If true, that would certainly be news to the 16,500[i] organic farmers, 76[ii] USDA-accredited organic certifiers, and countless organic products companies across the globe. Unlike myriad other label claims currently in the market, there is indeed a way to confirm that a crop has been grown organically.

After years of advocacy by farmers and producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the organic certification program in 2002. Today, organic is one of the most heavily regulated and closely monitored foodways in the U.S. In order to describe a product as “organic” on the marketplace, that product has to be certified as following detailed regulations for growing, handling, and processing. While some consumers may focus on organic’s restriction of GMOs, pesticides, and fertilizers, the label claim actually includes many other requirements that can’t be determined through simple testing. Those requirements (e.g., soil quality, biodiversity, animal welfare) are just as integral to ensuring that organic is a healthy, climate-smart form of agriculture as what the seal prohibits.

Organic Certification, Inspection

Building his argument upon Constant’s case as if it were the rule and not the exception, Parker suggests that organic certification is based on hardly more than a wink and a nod. “In a market that often seems to value a certificate of authenticity over authenticity, all he had to do was lie,” he says. In actuality, applying for, obtaining, and maintaining organic certification is a rigorous process. Let’s examine the two key elements of organic certification – inspections and testing – most critiqued in the article (find more details on organic certification from USDA here and a list of requirements to become certified organic here).

As rigorous as certification is, the requirements[iii] for becoming an accredited certifier and maintaining accreditation are no less so. Certifiers have to be on their game because organic is one of the most heavily regulated certification systems in the world. Annual audits and on-site inspections include a top-to-bottom review of records and thorough visual assessments of all fields, buildings, and facilities to confirm that organic system plans are consistent with practices and compliant with organic requirements. These on-site inspections must occur at a time when the daily activities of the operation can be observed by the inspector and are bolstered by periodic, surprise inspections.

Organic inspectors and certifiers, much like those in any other industry (e.g., a housing inspector, an auditor), are not – as Parker suggests – beholden to the individual farmer or operation, but to the industry they serve. While losing the business of a single operation might be disappointing, an inspector and inspection company’s ability to stay in business hinges on their reputation in the industry. Not doing a thorough job of inspecting or falsely certifying is the surest way to find oneself out of business.  

Parker does highlight one legitimate soft spot in his article: ensuring that sales and acreage of organic crops add up. Inspectors should already be conducting mass-balances and trace-back audits at every inspection to ensure that fraud like Constant’s isn’t able to occur. The forthcoming Strengthening Organic Enforcement (SOE) rule will bolster fraud prevention by requiring all certifiers to list an operation’s acreage on their organic certification. SOE will enhance supply chain audits to ensure traceability and accountability at every step in the organic supply chain and require every certified operator to develop monitoring practices and procedures to verify organic status.

Organic Certification, Testing

Though the article cites several instances in which testing was successfully used to identify fraudulent products, Parker seems intent on invoking alarm that no perfect litmus test exists to prove organic bona fides. No single test exists because organic certification is a process. Organic certification was never intended to be a one-legged stool standing solely on chemical analysis. Certification and inspection includes testing, but many of the requirements that make organic the climate-smart label claim that it is require inspection – much the same way that a test might be useful for determining a problem with your car, but inspection by a trained professional is the best way to ensure safety.

USDA-accredited certifying agents use a variety of tools to verify that organic farmers and processors aren’t using prohibited substances (e.g., pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs) and that they are protecting products from inadvertent residual contamination. Contrary to the claims of the article, these tools include annual and surprise on-site inspections as well as required residue testing. In addition to testing protocols implemented by the farmer and/or required by the purchaser of organic products, Certifiers are required to sample and test at least five percent of operations annually, and these tests are in addition to the supplemental testing protocols implemented by the operation or purchaser.

USDA-accredited certifying agents employ routine tests as part of their inspection processes; they also carry out testing when a prohibited substance is suspected or when a certifier or the National Organic Program (NOP) receives a complaint. When residues of prohibited pesticides are detected at or above five percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s tolerance level, that product cannot be sold as organic and must be diverted to the conventional market, which has weaker standards regarding pesticide residues. In the case of any positive detection, the certifier must conduct an investigation and respond with adverse actions as appropriate. Under USDA’s enforcement authority, any certified organic operation found to use prohibited substances may face repercussions, including loss of certification and financial penalties.

Like many respected claims on the market (e.g., Made in America, cage-free, grass-fed), there is no one test to prove organic providence. Parker paints this as a weakness, but organic’s process-based certification is one of our greatest strengths. Organic is not the presence or absence of a single trait or substance. Organic is a system, one that enriches the land, plants and animals, and people.

Continuous Improvement

We cannot and should not shy away from acknowledging that fraud happens; in the case of Randy Constant, it happened in a big way. But the claim that organic is nothing more than “a story” is not only false, it erases decades of hard work by organic producers and advocates to continuously improve and cultivate a more sustainable, climate-smart food and farm system. Is the timeline between a red flag being raised and prosecution for fraud sometimes a long one? Yes. And while the organic industry is continuously working with USDA to streamline enforcement processes, we are also committed to ensuring that due process is never short circuited.

There are 28,403[iv] organic operations in the United States today and demand for more as consumer interest in organic products continues to outpace supply. Those operations, farmers, and farm workers aren’t just stories, they’re real people who are putting real time, love, and effort into growing plants and raising animals the best way possible – organically.

The organic industry is proud of what we’ve accomplished and grown, but we’re also committed to continuous improvement. As part of our 2018 Farm Bill platform, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) advocated aggressively for increased oversight of the global organic supply chain (see our formal comments to NOP on enforcement enhancement). These efforts led to a 2018 Farm Bill that took tremendous steps forward in modernizing federal efforts to prevent organic fraud, including:

  • Additional funding to help NOP keep pace with industry growth and carry out compliance and enforcement actions in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Strengthening the NOP’s authority and capacity to conduct investigations.
  • Investing in technology and access to data to improve tracking of international organic trade.
  • Adding measures to strengthen global organic supply chain integrity, such as limiting the types of operations excluded from certification and requiring electronic import documentation.

Today, NOP is double the size that it was during the Constant case and better equipped with more robust tools and authorities such as: authority for increased data collection for all products entering the U.S., yield data surveillance, oversight of certifying agents operating in foreign countries, interagency collaboration to best leverage expertise, and access to cross-border documentation systems administered by other federal agencies. The industry is also actively working to shore up organic integrity. In May 2017, OTA convened the Global Organic Supply Chain Integrity Task Force to develop a best practice program for organic businesses to help mitigate the risk and occurrence of organic fraud. After two years of piloting the program with 13 OTA member companies, a verification program for the private sector was rolled out industry-wide. Today, leadership and commitment from OTA members continues to drive the adoption of processes that strengthen the organic supply chain.

To have suggested, as Parker does, organic certification is no more than storytelling is an argument reductio ad absurdum at best and a flat-out fallacy at worst. Both Parker and The New Yorker would do well to learn the lesson of Randy Constant themselves: Telling a great story may get you far, but the truth always catches up in the end. //

This response was prepared by Reana Kovalcik, Organic Trade Association's Director of Public Affairs, and submitted to The New Yorker as a letter to the editor on November 10, 2021.

[i] USDA NASS Organic Survey

[ii] NOP Organic Integrity Database

[iii] Section 205.501(a)(11) spells out the conflict-of-interest requirements of certifiers accredited under USDA.

[iv] NOP Organic Integrity Database