More Fake Organic Food: Another Investigative Report and Consumer Alert

Thanks to the investigative reporting by journalists at the Washington Post, we have yet another report of fake organic food.  (See their previous report on faux organic milk here.) This time it is fake organic corn and soybeans–which are the staple ingredients for the bulk of U.S. processed foods. At least half of some organic commodities — especially corn, soybeans and coffee — come from overseas, from as many as 100 countries. In the case of faux organic corn and soybeans, these devious suppliers are making millions of dollars more per shipment by slapping on a “USDA Certified Organic” sticker (products with a “USDA Organic” label routinely sell for twice the price of their conventional counterparts).  Meanwhile, consumers are getting duped out of paying more money for what they believe is organic food and unwittingly ingesting food sourced with corn and soybean that have been doused in fumigating synthetic pesticides like aluminum phosphide, a pesticide prohibited under organic regulations.


The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren’t

Washington Post

A shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans sailed late last year from Ukraine to Turkey to California. Along the way, it underwent a remarkable transformation.

The cargo began as ordinary soybeans, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Like ordinary soybeans, they were fumigated with a pesticide. They were priced like ordinary soybeans, too.

But by the time the 600-foot cargo ship carrying them to Stockton, Calif., arrived in December, the soybeans had been labeled “organic,” according to receipts, invoices and other shipping records. That switch — the addition of the “USDA Organic” designation — boosted their value by approximately $4 million, creating a windfall for at least one company in the supply chain.

After being contacted by The Post, the broker for the soybeans, Annapolis-based Global Natural, emailed a statement saying it may have been “provided with false certification documents” regarding some grain shipments from Eastern Europe. About 21 million pounds of the soybeans have already been distributed to customers.

The multimillion-dollar metamorphosis of the soybeans, as well as two other similar grain shipments in the past year examined by The Post, demonstrate weaknesses in the way that the United States ensures that what is sold as “USDA Organic” is really organic.

The three shipments, each involving millions of pounds of “organic” corn or soybeans, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities. All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary. And all three hailed from Turkey, now one of the largest exporters of organic products to the United States, according to Foreign Agricultural Service statistics…


How this could happen

…when the USDA has responded to complaints of questionable imports, action has come too late to prevent the products from reaching consumers.

Four months after the soybeans arrived in California and after The Post began making calls about the shipment, county officials acting on behalf of the USDA showed up at the warehouse where the soybeans were being stored. The officials took samples to test for exposure to pesticides.

By that time, about 21 million pounds of the 36 million-pound shipment had already reached farms and mills. The customers who have purchased the soybeans said they were unaware there may have been a problem until a Post reporter called…


Other Faux Organic Foods

To test USDA claims that organic imports are rigorously monitored, The Post examined pesticide residue testing conducted on organic products in China.

China is the leading source of organic tea and ginger in the United States, and its food exports have drawn repeated scrutiny…

As in the United States, farmers in China seeking the “USDA Organic” label hire an inspection agency to certify that they meet the organic rules.

Using public-records laws, The Post obtained the results of pesticide residue tests conducted on farms with USDA organic certification in China. Although pesticide tests are not mandatory, inspection agencies are required to take samples from 5 percent of their clients, and The Post requested the results from the three most active inspection agencies overseeing Chinese farms.

The pesticide results showed very high levels of pesticide residue on some “organic” Chinese products. They also showed that the pesticide residue tests are applied unevenly.

One of the largest inspection agencies, a German company known as Ceres, appears to do rigorous testing.

Of 232 samples that Ceres tested from the Chinese organic farms, 37 percent showed more than traces of pesticide residue.


How organic food from China gets contaminated

Some of the problem arises from pesticides from neighboring farms drifting over, experts said, and some is contamination from China’s polluted soil and water…the water available for washing the ginger is so polluted that it leaves pesticide residue.


USDA pesticide rules are random

The pesticide residue results that were obtained by The Post also indicate that enforcement of “USDA Organic” rules for pesticides are uneven and possibly arbitrary, with results depending on the inspection agency…

Critics say the disparity in results shows that certifying agencies can make any farm look organic.

“The certifying agencies can choose who and when they test,” said Mischa Popoff, a former USDA organic inspector turned critic. “That’s why the results they can get are completely arbitrary.”