- An organic industry watchdog group has published an online buyer's guide showing brands of organic dairy, eggs and poultry products fed only U.S.-grown organic grains. The Cornucopia Institute said it produced the guide following consumer concerns about reports that imported organic grains do not necessarily deserve the label.
- The Wisconsin-based group also published a report, "Against the Grain: Protecting Organic Shoppers Against Import Fraud and Farmers from Unfair Competition," in which it blames neglect from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program for high levels of fraudulent organic corn and soybeans imported from China and former Soviet bloc countries.
- "Identifying marketplace alternatives for consumers is critical to putting an end to the profiteering perpetrated by agribusinesses that fail to verify the authenticity of organic grains being used to produce their products," Mark A. Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute's co-director, said in a release.
It's hard to tell how this buyer's guide will impact industry since it just came out and currently only includes 11 egg producers, six broiler producers, nine dairy producers and 12 feed operations as using organic domestic feed only. It's possible some consumers will take a look to see which brands available in their area made the list, and producers may want to check which feed and milling operations produce organic grain. Companies listed in the buyer's guide could experience sales bumps as a result.
The majority of U.S. dairy, egg and poultry producers who don't use domestic organic grain in their operations might be asked whether they source imported grain and whether they're certain it's organic. However, this buyer's guide isn't likely to hurt their business by not listing them — it would potentially be more harmful if they were listed in it as not making the grade.
The group's companion report claims the USDA's National Organic Program has dropped the ball on overseeing grain imports, resulting in cheaper and fraudulently labeled "organic" corn and soybeans flooding the U.S. market. U.S. producers have lost more than $500 million because of dubious grain imports since 2015, according to the report.
"From 2013 to 2016, imports of organic corn quadrupled from $36.6 million to $160.4 million. Imports of organic soybeans also increased dramatically, from $41.8 million in 2011 to $250.5 million in 2016," it states, citing statistics from the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service’s Agricultural Trade System.
The USDA's National Organic Program told Feed Navigator in July it has been improving oversight procedures of the organic supply chain, and that certifiers and other staff have received increased training on detecting and deterring fraud in the organic market.
Besides the problem of bogus organic labeling and losses to domestic farmers from imports, the situation tends to undermine the authenticity of the USDA Organic seal and cast doubt over the entire industry. That's why the Organic Trade Association recently launched a three-month voluntary pilot program to try and prevent fraud through a set of recommendations and a best practices guide.
Ending longstanding controversies about the integrity of organics will take a longer-term and more intensive focus than a buyer's guide or a pilot program, although those approaches can help. Fraud is a big problem for the food industry — not just for organics, but also for other items, including honey, oil and fish — so The Cornucopia Institute may be seen as doing consumers a favor.
The group caused a stir in August by reporting that many of today's factory dairy farms are cheating customers by flooding the market with milk that's not truly organic — driving out family businesses and harming rural areas in the process. A scorecard rated about 160 organic dairy brands and private-label products on authenticity and production quality. Forty-six of them got a zero rating, including Alta Dena, part of Dean Foods; and Horizon, owned by Danone.
If the reputation of organic foods and beverages is seriously damaged, it won't help producers, retailers or consumers who want labels to mean exactly what they say — especially since they're paying a premium for that organic seal. But whether the situation can be resolved anytime soon is unclear. It may take other labeling schemes separate from the USDA to maintain meaningful organic standards.