- The Organic Trade Association is forming its own anti-fraud task force after several news reports showed some imported organic products may not truly be derived using organic methods, according to an article in Food Safety News.
- The industry group's new task force, which is planned to be operational by the end of this month, will share information with organic certification agencies, including documentation that importers give to the U.S. Agriculture Department when shipments of organic food are rejected.
- “There is a strong desire on the part of industry to stop the incidence of fraud in organic,” OTA Director Laura Batcha told The Washington Post. “The consumer expects that organic products are verified back to the farm. The industry takes that contract with the consumer very seriously.”
While the popularity of organic food is growing, it is inevitable that organic food fraud may increase, too. According to the OTA, organic food sales totaled $43 billion in 2016. Organic produce makes up about 15% of all of the fruits and vegetables Americans eat. And these numbers are projected to keep growing. 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 organic certification also can be given to products imported into the United States. Those products are supposed to be subject to the same rigorous guidelines and inspections as the ones produced domestically.
But late last year, The Washington Post found three large shipments of corn and soybeans that came into the United States from Turkey were labeled as "USDA Organic," even though they were conventionally farmed and had been treated with pesticides. Reporters found pesticide residue tests on "organic" produce were uneven, with more than a third of the tests done by a single test company in China showing more than traces of the residue.
Many have criticized USDA for being too lax and slow in inspecting fraudulent organic imports. In this situation, it makes sense for a trade association to step up its efforts. Batcha told The Washington Post the agency is lobbying to give USDA more enforcement powers in the next farm bill, which is set to be passed next year.
In the meantime, USDA announced it will post more organic program enforcement actions on its website. In an email press release this week, the agency said it's now publishing suspension or revocation of organic certification notices. Settlements and decisions also will be added to the site much more quickly — within weeks instead of quarterly.
While the industry is redoubling efforts to ensure organic food lives up to its certification, how consumers may feel about it is another question. With organic fraud stories getting a fair amount of play in the news, do consumers trust the products that are labeled as "organic"? Stepping up enforcement and boosting transparency are two parts of regaining consumer confidence.
Public information campaigns about organic food, inspections and what the certification actually means may be another piece of the puzzle. Showing consumers more about what makes products organic — and how manufacturers and regulators ensure the products deserve the certification — can bridge the credibility gap that may have opened.