The USDA’s crackdown on organic food fraud will likely make things worse

Revised US Department of Agriculture regulations announcement The agency has high hopes for plans to crack down on fraud in the organic food sector last month.

“The revisions build consumer and industry confidence in the USDA organic label by protecting integrity in the organic supply chain and strengthening organic regulatory systems, improving farm-to-market traceability, and providing stronger enforcement of USDA organic regulations,” the agency explained in January. 19 notice in Federal Register. The new final rule, Dub Strengthening of organic applicationSet to take effect next month (with implementation delayed until next year).

Some welcome the USDA’s position.

“The Organic Trade Association, which lobbied for the ruling, said it represents the biggest change in organic regulations since the creation of the USDA Organic Food Program,” Associated Press Report. “OTA officials said in a statement that the regulation will ‘do much to prevent and detect organic fraud and protect organic integrity throughout the supply chain.'”

Organic food is big business in this country, and the organic label helps bring a premium price.

“To consumers, the symbol means an assurance that an agricultural product such as beef or celery has been produced using only naturally occurring fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs,” I explain in my book. Biting the hand that feeds us: How low, smart laws will make our food system more sustainable. “To producers, the USDA organic seal means higher costs, but also the opportunity to charge consumers more for that beef or celery.”

Because of that price premium—and because organic food is indistinguishable from conventionally raised versions of the same food—fraud is not hard to spot in the organic food sector. For example, a 2018 case sent two South Dakota grain farmers to federal prison. fraud A buyer worth more than $70 million. Two years ago, The New Yorker Details A scheme involving millions of dollars in the sale of fraudulent organic crops. Just last month, the Department of Justice to charge A Minnesota farmer with nearly $50 million in fraudulent grain sales.

So will greater USDA oversight of organic foods solve those problems? Call me skeptical.

The revised rules include certain producers and sellers anxious They will increase costs for them and consumers. That would mean higher prices, and higher prices probably mean more incentives to cheat.

A more obvious problem is this: The USDA has been aware for years that there have been massive failures in its oversight of organic food—but that knowledge has not motivated the agency to act. For example, a 2010 report by the USDA Office of Inspector General found that the agency’s “enforcement of federal laws governing organics is extremely poor.” Food Safety News Report A subsequent USDA OIG report in 2017—it Focus On import of organic food-found (Per Buzzfeed) that “consumers who make a point to buy organic food can be torn by USDA oversight and other problems”.

As I did explained, when it comes to these and other problems plaguing organic food, the USDA is more of a cause than a solution. That’s why more agency involvement in biology will likely exacerbate that problem.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Hippies, homesteaders and other counterculture types helped to popularize Even a few decades ago, organic food and agriculture in this country. As a result of their efforts, organic food certification and labels sprouted in this country and existed for decades before Congress entered the sector.

“Organic certification programs began in the early 1970s, when small producers using natural and sustainable farming methods in states like Oregon and California banded together to set minimum standards for themselves and their peers,” I explain. Bite the hand that feeds us. “Certifiers and small farmers have worked with states to pass legislation supporting the standards.”

Cheating was a problem even back then. In fact, fraud in this sector was why Congress transferred oversight of the industry’s labeling and marketing to the USDA.

“Allegations of fraud surrounding organic food led Congress to scrutinize the certification process,” I explain Bite the hand that feeds usTargeting Congress pass An organic-labeling law passed in 1990 that didn’t go into effect until more than a decade later. “But if the purpose of the USDA’s involvement in organic certification is to prevent fraud, its success has been a mixed bag.”

For example, I note in the book, citing numerous reports, that “the agency has used its congressional mandate to water down the meaning of the term ‘organic’ to the benefit of large agricultural producers.” I also detail how the Cornucopia Institute, a group that is “one of the nation’s strongest supporters of organic farming,” is also “one of the leading critics of USDA organic standards.”

I often buy organic food. And I hate when businesses cheat consumers. Under the USDA’s watch, fraud is rampant in the organic food industry. I have little faith that an agency first charged with preventing fraud in the organic food sector is finally going to address that problem 33 years later.

As I did suggested earlier, a better plan than giving the USDA more power over organic products would be for Congress to eliminate the agency’s oversight of organic foods entirely. With this change, private, state-based organizations (such as CCOF and Oregon Tilth) that have been responsible for certifying producers as organic since the 1970s will continue to verify a producer’s organic status. States may then delegate such certifiers or state, regional or even oversight National organizationswhich can work with certifiers to ensure compliance by certifiers and punish bad actors.