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USDA strengthens rules and enforcement to make sure organic products are really organic

 Campbell McCreary drives a tractor through a field in Toledo, Iowa. He raises organic soybeans, corn and other crops with his father, Craig McCreary.
Craig McCreary
Campbell McCreary drives a tractor through a field in Toledo, Iowa. He raises organic soybeans, corn and other crops with his father, Craig McCreary.

New guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture aim to crack down on organic fraud in an attempt to level the playing field for organic farmers and boost consumer confidence in organic products.

The rules strengthen certification and enforcement throughout the supply chain, closing loopholes that allow fraudsters to cash in on premiums in the nearly $60 billion organic industry.

In a statement, the Organic Trade Association said the new regulation “represents the biggest change to organic regulations since the creation of the USDA’s National Organic Program.”

Sam Welsch founded OneCert, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based company that verifies farmers and businesses meet organic standards in growing, processing and handling products.

He said stricter enforcement is a long time coming.

“This is not a new issue by any means,” Welsch said.

He said OneCert reported an Iowa farmer as early as 2007, more than 10 years before Randy Constant ultimately admitted passing off at least $142 million in conventional grains as organic over several years.

Craig McCreary has farmed organic grains in Iowa for more than 20 years. He suspects falsely labeled product was part of what dragged down prices in the past.

“People want to have organic, which is a superior product,” he said. “You can’t be diluting the market fraudulently. My prices went from a little over $10 down to $8.”

He said bad actors probably see the premium and don’t consider the difference between organic and conventional farming. Organic farming takes more time and more resources, since growers can’t rely on chemicals to kill weeds or increase soil fertility.

“We still have to walk beans to get the weeds in some cases,” McCreary said. “But nowadays you don’t see many conventional farmers out of an air conditioned tractor cab.”

In the grocery store

It’s not just farmers who could benefit from stricter regulations – shoppers can also put more trust into items.

Leigh Neary runs Exist Green, a grocery and zero waste store in Omaha, Nebraska. She sources organic products to avoid the synthetic fertilizers and herbicides common in conventional farming — her background in environmental engineering showed her how chemicals build up in the environment and end up in food and waterways.

Neary said the regulations can increase her confidence in goods stamped with an organic label, but she’s concerned prices may increase if every link along the organic supply chain pays for certification.

“The rules help me believe in the organic label, but it’s already tough to compete with the bigger stores,” she said.

An exemption for retailers that keep products in packaging makes Neary worried the rule could give an advantage to larger retailers who can advertise organic products without certification.

“We try our best to have somewhat reasonable prices and it makes me nervous we’re not going to be able to stamp something as organic,” she said.

Enforcement

Anne Ross is with The Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog non-profit for the organic industry.

She’s investigated cases of grain fraud and said she’s encouraged by the rules that require brokers and traders to be certified organic and the regulations for standardizing the organic seal. Ross also said the more stringent record keeping for traceability and a system of unannounced inspections could help eliminate fraud.

But still, updated rules won’t be able to stop bad actors on their own.

“Everyone is aware that fraud can still continue. And while this is real progress, it’s not a panacea,” Ross said. “There will always be people who try to get around the rules.”

To Welsch, that means enforcement is as important as the new regulations. He said it falls on individual certifiers like his company and the USDA to keep an eye out for bad actors and find ways to improve.

“Time will tell whether these rules are enough,” he said. “If we implement these new rules with the intention which they're created, then it should be more effective and benefit consumers and organic farmers.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Elizabeth Rembert

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