By GAP Food & Drug Safety Officer Jacqueline Ostfeld.
The organic food industry is booming. In this country alone, sales have grown from $4 to $18 billion in just ten years. The sharp rise is largely due to increased public skepticism about the conventional food supply. Last year brimmed with food safety scares and scandals. Now with the impending market arrival of cloned animal products, consumer concerns about the wholesomeness of their food are commonplace.
The public is ripe for change – and big business is geared up for the challenge. Nothing could have better symbolized organic food’s entry into the lives of mainstream America than when, last summer, Wal-Mart announced it would introduce organic products at affordable prices. But is that really what consumers are getting?
As major retailers stock their shelves with “organic” products, underselling the existing industry, longtime organics advocates fear for the standards. Cutting costs invites cutting corners. While the vast majority of organic farmers, ranchers and retailers follow legal standards, violations by the few, combined with inadequate oversight, threaten the integrity of the entire sector.
The allegations have begun. Horizon and Aurora, the country’s two largest organic dairy producers, have been hit with a consumer boycott for confining their cows to feedlots rather than providing required access to pasture. Cows cramped in feedlots spend their lives wallowing in a mixture of mud and feces. Studies show that cows fattened on grass, rather than corn, are far less likely to harbor the dangerous and sometimes deadly strain of E. coli that continually threatens our food supply.
Consumers expect that organic milk comes from cows grazing on pesticide-free pastures. A recent poll by the Center for Food Safety found that over 60 percent of women – primary household shoppers – who purchase organic milk, would stop if they knew that cows were confined rather than grazing. Smaller distributors have already dropped Horizon from their shelves.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is soon expected to clarify guidelines detailing the level of pasture access organically raised cows must receive. Whether or not the rule change will satisfy public expectations remains to be seen. Even if it does, it will be left to USDA-sanctioned, but privately or state-employed organic certifiers, to monitor compliance. Their track record of enforcement is uninspiring.
China has four times the amount of land in organic food production than does the US. China’s organic exports, growing at a rate of 50 percent annually, now total upwards of $200 million. While most of the exports enter European markets, a significant and growing portion are reaching American dinner tables. Yet a USDA economist acknowledged that China is probably too polluted “to grow truly organic food.”
A Dallas Morning News investigation disclosed the discovery by a Japanese inspector of an empty herbicide bag on an “organic” soybean field in China. Could soy from this field enter the US market? Absolutely. The USDA says it would not look behind the claim that the herbicide bag was carried by the wind onto the farm. Rather, it relies on organic certifiers to make the call.
The Cornucopia Institute, a farm advocacy group, discovered last September that Wal-Mart was falsely labeling conventional products with organic sales tags in its retail stores across the country. Wal-Mart has yet to clean up its act, compelling the Organic Consumers Association to call a nationwide boycott of what it calls “America’s retail Death Star.”
Perhaps the USDA is asleep at the wheel. More generously, they are overworked, under-staffed and under-funded. The USDA’s National Organic Program, still in its infancy, is unable to keep up with the galloping market growth. Last year, the Dallas Morning News revealed that the USDA has no idea to what degree organic standards are being violated. That’s no wonder, as the agency has been nonchalant about following up on leads into potential misbehavior.
Because of organic advocacy groups and committed journalists, some violations of the standards have been exposed, action is being taken and the public is becoming more discerning about which organic food brands and retailers they can trust. But holding appropriate parties accountable to organic standards is everyone’s job. Government and corporate employees on the inside are also critical to ensuring the integrity of the industry. Let’s keep organic organic.