Mismatch in organic food data in raises fraud questions in US

US import figures suggest countries are selling more organic agricultural products than they have capacity to produce, raising questions about the likelihood of food fraud and mislabelled organic products entering the US market.

The concern was noted at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Washington and reported by FoodNavigator-USA.

According to the figures presented at the forum, US-produced organic corn and soybean have seen double-digital growth since 2014, increasing 12.9 per cent and 12.3 per cent respectively, making the US the largest producer of both these crops.

However, import data shows that foreign-produced organic-labelled products have also increased, with imports of organic soybean increasing 13 per cent and imports of organic corn increasing 5.9 per cent in 2017.

According to Peter Golbitz, founder of organic consulting service Agromeris, the amount of organic-labelled corn and soybean being imported from some countries into the US is above what those countries can produce.

“That started raising questions and people were [asking] is it really organic? Is it really certified? There was some testing done and some loads rejected because of pesticide or chemical residue on a crop,” he said, adding that this indicated mislabelling going on.

It also potentially pointed to why some countries could produce supposed organic products and ship them to the US at a cost cheaper than the US domestic market could produce, he said.

Imports of fraudulent organic products is a growing concern in the US, with a number of recent reports suggesting mislabelled products were entering the US market.

Last year, The Washington Post published an investigative report that highlighted weaknesses in the organic monitoring system and detailed how easy it was for exporters to sell gross amounts of fraudulent organic products into the US market. It singled out fraudulently mislabelled soybean and grain imports, which also had fake USDA Organic Designation, noting that the fraud boosted soybeans’ value by approximately $4m. 

According to the US Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM), as much as 60-70 per cent of organic imports may be fraudulent.

The Post’s findings sparked criticism from the organic farming watchdog The Cornucopia Institute, which made claims of “gross incompetence” and “corruption” at the National Organic Program (NOP), and called for action to “correct chronic failings”.

In September last year, a report found that the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service – which has oversight of the National Organic Program – was lacking in its control and oversight of imported products labelled as organic and concluded that some fraudulent and mislabelled products could be slipping through customs into the US.

Specifically, the report found that there was no transparency over the process to determine whether imported organic-labelled goods were either equivalent or compliant with US organic standards – and there was no assurance that required import documents were even reviewed, let alone authenticated. In addition, there was no system in place to identify and track organic-labelled products that had been fumigated with NOP-prohibited substances on entry to kill pests, which would no longer allow such products to be labelled or sold as organic.

Following this report and in a bid to crackdown on US imports of fraudulent organic-labelled goods, legislators introduced a new bill in October last year. The bipartisan legislation – titled the Organic Farmer and Consumer Protection Act – would seek to provide the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program with between $15m and $20m a year from 2018 to 2023 to upgrade compliance and enforcement actions in the US and abroad, while and additional $5m would improve tracking of international organic trade and data collection systems to ensure full traceability of imported products.

It is understood that NOP has produced a list of 90 fraudulent importers but no criminal charges have been laid.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

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