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Can you trust the USDA organic label?

By Dennis T. and Alex A. Avery
web posted August 14, 2006

Consumers across the country are paying higher prices for fruits, vegetables, milk and bread that carry the USDA Organic label. What does the label mean?

Apparently, not much. There's almost no testing of organic produce for pesticide residues, though all farmers use pesticides of some sort.

The USDA Organic label means only that an independent certifier -- hired by the farmer -- did a once-a-year walk over the farm, looked briefly at the farmer's records, and took his or her word that all of the vague organic rules were being followed. There are only 56 organic certifiers to oversee some 20,000 organic farmers working more than 2 million acres of land, supposedly without synthetic pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers or genetically engineered seeds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tested only 127 organic samples in the five years from 1994 to 1999 for residues of such organically banned pesticides as Roundup and 2, 4-D. No samples were tested for residues of copper sulfate, the toxic organic pesticide. California, which produces half of America's organic produce, has been testing about 100 organic produce samples per year.

When the Dallas Morning News this spring asked for records of all organic farming violations, the Department said it would take six months to assemble them. Barbara Robinson, head of the organic unit, said she had only eight or nine employees who were stretched over many duties.

The industry has thousands of true believers who would stop farming before they violated organic principles. However, the organic foods' high profit margins have attracted millions of tons of production, massive processing plants, big contracts -- and strong pressures to deliver daily.

"There's definitely people who don't follow the rules," says Conner Updike, who grows organic beans and squash in central Florida. He fertilizes his fields with chicken manure, but has heard that other "organic" growers cheat with ammonium nitrate, which costs half as much, is easier to use, and impossible to detect.

USDA auditors report that certifiers have approved farms despite evidence that banned chemicals were used. Some certifiers gave approval without any inspection. Several audits note the same problems with the same certifiers year after year. Yet the USDA has never revoked or suspended a certifier's accreditation.

An increasing share of the organic produce in American stores is coming from China. The trend is likely to continue, since China has lots of hand labor to support the higher labor intensity of organic farming.

In the Dallas Morning News of July 25, Paula Lavigne quotes a Chinese sales official who said workers there sometimes fertilize the organic food crops with human waste. It's a common practice in China, but a major violation of the USDA rules.

Lavigne also quotes Matsumi Sakuyoshi, a Japanese inspector who has checked Chinese soybean fields for organic certifiers. Sakuyoshi found an empty plastic bag of herbicide. When confronted, a farmworker told her the wind must have blown it from a neighbor's field.

Sakuyoshi also questioned a certificate that said a piece of land hadn't been farmed for the previous three years, making it eligible for organic status. Hardly any Chinese farmland is left idle. The official who stamped the certificate told her, "I don't know. I don't care. They just asked me to stamp it, so I stamped it."

Let the buyer be aware.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Alex A. Avery is the Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues. Readers may write them at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

 

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