By: Violet Batcha, Communications Manager
In an article on Salon, “Organic food’s dirty secret: What the ‘seductive’ label fails to tell you,” Peter Laufer, a journalist and author says that food that bears the “organic” label may not necessarily be living up to the guarantees of the label.
Laufer argues that the U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts with third-party certifiers who can’t be trusted to ensure that organic operations are producing food and other products according to the federal organic standards. He suggests that certifiers are lacking oversight and inclined to findings of non-compliance.
The USDA reassesses certifiers every 2.5 years. They must renew their accreditations every five years. We believe this process helps ensure they are inspecting and certifying organic operations accurately. If it’s found that they aren’t, they risk losing their accreditation.
Laufer objects that inspections by certifiers can differ case by case.
To us, that’s only logical. There are many different types of organic operations. A mom-and-pop business that makes a small line of organic soaps at home doesn’t need the same degree of inspection as a large processing facility packaging salad mix to go to supermarkets.
Laufer claims that because certifiers are in business to make money, which they do from organic operations paying them for their certification, some may be more lenient in order to gain a competitive advantage in the market and be sought after by more organic farmers and processors.
Many certifiers are state government agencies and non-profits. All, even those being operated as for-profit businesses, risk losing their USDA accreditations if they are not conducting adequate inspections.
There are only 48 USDA-accredited certifying agents in the US and nearly 20,000 certified organic operations. If anything, this is an indication that there is room for even more certifiers in the marketplace and they are not currently struggling to compete with each other for business.
Laufer doubts that imported products are accurately labeled “organic” because U.S.-based certifiers are not necessarily inspecting farms where these foods are grown.
What he fails to mention is that there are 34 USDA-accredited certifying agents based abroad and they are responsible for the inspection of operations that export certified organic products.
In 2012 the USDA stripped Organic Crop Improvement Association of its accreditation for allowing unauthorized Chinese government officials to inspect Chinese-owned organic farms.
Sure, any compliance system is bound to miss things here and there, and the USDA National Organic Program is no exception. However, it is misleading to dismiss it as a systemically unreliable system because of unsubstantiated allegations. The process can always be improved.
But remember this — organic food goes through more rigorous approval and inspection than any other food on supermarket shelves.