- While certifiers are important to maintaining "the integrity of the organic label and preserving a fair and level playing field for ethical industry participants," a report from The Cornucopia Institute said the process used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to police and guide certifiers "can be lackluster." The nonprofit research group added that "inconsistent application of organic rules and regulations has led some certifiers to bend the existing rules to suit their largest clients and the growing industrialization of the organic marketplace."
- Poor federal oversight of third-party organic certifiers has resulted in factory farms dominating the $50-billion organic marketplace, The Cornucopia Institute said. Some of the biggest certifiers have permitted milk and eggs from livestock factories and produce grown without soil through hydroponics to "squeeze out legitimate family scale organic farmers and ranchers."
- The Cornucopia Institute also published a guide to 45 organic certifiers, rating them on how well the group believes they adhere to the "spirit and letter of the organic law." Five certifiers were ranked as "Exemplary (Greenlighted)," 25 were rated as "Fair to Excellent (Exercise caution)" and 18 were listed as "Documented Unethical Behavior (Stop supporting)."
This might be "the most provocative project" the group has worked on during its 15-year history, according to Mark Kastel, executive director of The Cornucopia Institute. The report claimed many of the original organic certifiers have gone from well-meaning nonprofits to "multimillion-dollar corporations more interested in pursuing multibillion-dollar corporate agribusinesses."
Should organic farmers stop using certain certifiers, it could end up having a large economic impact, Kastel added. "Make no mistake about it, farmers will be empowered to disrupt the revenue streams of some of the largest and most powerful certifiers in the organic industry by switching to truly ethical alternatives," he said in a release.
The Cornucopia Institute singled out for criticism California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) because it is the largest certifier in the country and a primary certifier of hydroponic operations. The group said CCOF certifies hydroponically grown produce from Driscoll's — a large berry producer based in California — and that CCOF is one of the largest donors to the Organic Trade Association.
The group's report is especially harsh on what it views as interlocking business relationships that diminish organic's core values.
"Cornucopia holds the position that conflicts of interest threaten organic integrity when clear boundaries between certifiers, their clients, the OTA, and the [USDA's National Organic Program] are not defined and enforced," the report states.
Since The Cornucopia Institute is clear about its opposition to allowing food grown with hydroponics to be certified as organic, this report should not come as a surprise. However, publishing a guide ranking 45 organic certifiers could give wholesale buyers and consumers a practical way to assess these organizations and decide whether to continuing doing business with them.
Plenty of groups and individuals, including the OTA, have expressed concern about the integrity of organic labeling and whether the public continues to trust in the "USDA Organic" seal. There have been a few well-publicized instances of organic fraud, including a 2016 shipment of conventionally grown Turkish corn and soybeans that was imported to the U.S. under the "USDA Organic" label. Such high-profile cases have the potential to threaten the trust people have in the organic sector.
There's also the question of whether imported organic food can be trusted. The OTA said such imports jumped almost 25% in 2017, for a total of about $2.1 billion. While this is just a fraction of the record $45.2 billion in domestic sales of organic food the OTA reported that year, it's still significant, so oversight of foreign third-party certifiers could be another potential area of concern.
According to The Washington Post, The Cornucopia Institute will follow up this report and scorecard with letters to all U.S. organic farmers and food businesses suggesting they ask certifiers for a moratorium on hydroponics and point out dairies and egg producers running counter to organic standards.
Kastel told The Post he hopes consumers will demand more transparency in the organic certification system.
"If you can’t trust a certifier universally, or the USDA system, then none of it is trustworthy," he said. "There’s a higher authority in these issues than the USDA. It’s the consumer. They control the dollar and have the last word."
It's uncertain whether federal regulators or the organic industry will respond to this report by making any changes in the third-party certifier program to enhance integrity and trust as advocated by The Cornucopia Institute. They may have no choice but to respond if farmers, wholesalers and consumers pay attention, think it's important and respond by changing their organic business and purchasing decisions.