The recent case of three Nebraska farmers pleading guilty to a multi-million dollar fraud, in which they sold non-organic corn and soybeans as organic, only emphasizes the pitfalls that exist for consumers who pay more — often quite a bit more — to purchase organic foods that they consider nutritionally superior to those conventionally grown.
Court documents indicate the farmers, operating a farm certified through the USDA’s National Organic Program, knowingly used pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers on the crops, and mixed those grains with organic grains, rendering them all non-organic. They received significantly higher prices for the grain sold as organic, prosecutors say.
Organic food sales in the U.S. topped $45 billion in 2017, a record, accounting for 5.5 percent of the food sold in retail channels. Analysts say organic food sales, growing at double-digit annual rates, will continue to outpace those of the overall food market.
Unfortunately, a market that is built largely on consumer perception and trust is increasingly subject to fraud. USDA studies have indicated that as much as 40 percent of all food sold in the U.S. as organic tests positive for prohibited pesticides/fertilizers. Further adding to uncertainty about the legitimacy of organics is that about 80 percent of the food sold in the U.S. as organic is imported from China, Mexico, and other countries, where certification procedures may be lax and bribes and other skullduggery are not unknown.
Earlier this year Richard Read, who has done extensive investigation of organic fraud for nerdwallet, reported that American consumers paid more than $6 million for Costa Rican pineapples sold as organic, but were grown with banned chemicals. In a previous article, Read wrote that the USDA “fails at regulation of organic food, as fraudulent products overwhelm the agency’s conflicted, compromised system … The USDA’s National Organic Program has not kept up with the explosive growth of organic food production and sales — either in staffing or enforcement.
“The system today enables high-dollar fraud, as swindlers exploit high premiums charged by honest players for the risks, expense, and hard work of producing genuine organics. The USDA’s failings undermine authentic producers and tarnish the agency’s organic seal, jeopardizing its promise as an emblem of trust.”
There is no little irony that, increasingly, consumers avoid foods containing GMO ingredients, which have been proven in thousands of rigorous scientific tests to be safe, and pay more for the perception of healthier, safer organic foods that may in fact not be organic.
Who’s to know? In side-by-side blind comparisons of organic/non-organic, most consumers can’t tell the difference. If the products they purchase are not genuinely organic, they likely will never know. But the fraudsters will have not only gypped them of their money, they will have undermined trust in the system.