Federal legislation proposed to crack down on fake organics
- A bill introduced in Congress would toughen inspections of imported organic produce to ensure the food items are genuine. Reps. John Faso, a New York Republican, and Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from New Mexico, are pushing for the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act to provide more money for enforcement and compliance to USDA's National Organic Program, according to Food Navigator.
- The bill came following a recent audit report from the USDA's Office of Inspector General that found the department's Agricultural Marketing Service needed to strengthen its controls over the approval and oversight of international trade arrangements and agreements for the import of organic products into the U.S.
- Among other provisions, the bill would require currently uncertified importers, brokers, ports and online auctions to become organic-certified or lose their organic labeling. This would close a loophole in current law that permits organic agricultural products fumigated for pests at U.S. ports to still be admitted and sold as organic.
With the popularity of organic food rapidly growing, it was inevitable that fraud would grow as well. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales totaled $43 billion in 2016 — an increase of nearly $3.7 billion from the previous year. Organic produce makes up about 15% of all of the fruits and vegetables Americans eat. And these numbers are projected to keep increasing. According to a TechSci Research report, the global organic food market is projected to grow at a CAGR of more than 14% until 2021.
The OTA formed its own anti-fraud task force this past summer following media reports that some products may not have actually been derived using organic methods. The task force planned to share information with organic certification agencies, including documentation that importers give to USDA when shipments of organic food are rejected.
The recently proposed bill would authorize $15 million to $20 million each year from 2018-2023 for USDA's National Organic Program to spend on enforcement and $5 million to modernize its international trade tracking and data collection systems.
The organic food industry is understandably leery of the prospect of agricultural products getting into the country that may have been subjected to fumigant treatments unacceptable for certified organic food. If that were proven to have occurred, the integrity of the system could be challenged, prices could drop, and consumers might lose faith that the food items they're buying are really organic.
“Protecting the integrity of organic is critical for the advancement of organic," Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement. "Our farmers have to have a level playing field, and organic consumers have to be able to trust that they are getting what they pay for when they buy organic."
The Trump administration has submitted its 2018 fiscal budget to Congress, and so far its priorities don't involve enforcement of organic standards, or increased support for any food regulations. Barring major consumer pressure, the newly introduced legislation has little chance of getting anywhere in the current session.
A better strategy would be to try and include enhanced organic enforcement authority in next year's farm bill, a move the Organic Trade Association has been busy advocating on Capitol Hill.