Organic food's dirty secret: What the "seductive" label fails to tell you

Just because food is labeled organic doesn't mean it's what you're expecting, journalist Peter Laufer tells Salon

Published July 19, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Purchase produce emblazoned with the USDA's official organic seal, and you should be able to assume several things are true: Your food will have been grown without the benefit of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge or irradiation, and it won't contain genetically modified organisms. Meat labeled organic will have been raised on such crops, and will be free of antibiotics and growth hormones; pre-slaughter, the cow or chicken or pig's handlers were held to certain standards of animal health and welfare.

Whether or not you're buying something that's healthier than conventional food is still up for debate -- the biggest analysis to date found little evidence for this being the case, although it did suggest that eating organic can reduce your risk of exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

It is, of course, almost certainly going to cost more. The reasons why people decide to shell out for organic may vary depending on how well they understand the specifics, but at the very least, most recognize that buy choosing organic, they're purchasing a product grown in ways that subvert the worst, environmental-damage-causing practices of conventional food production.

All that only works, however, if we can trust the integrity of the organic label. And according to journalist Peter Laufer, it's seriously in need of reform. In his new book, "Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling," Laufer attempts to trace the origins of two products: organic walnuts that he purchased at a Trader Joe's, and black beans from a Whole Foods competitor, which arrived in California via, respectively, Kazakhstan and Bolivia. Getting clear answers about where, exactly, the food came from and how it was grown turns out to be a lot harder than he anticipated.

The organic label, Laufer tells Salon, has become "inappropriately seductive" to overly trusting consumers -- a healthy degree of skepticism is needed about the food distribution system as a whole. Only by demanding our food be held to a higher level of scrutiny, he argues, can the organic label live up to its ideal.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows:

I’ve written about the problem with words like “natural,” which food companies love to put on their products, because they don't actually mean anything. But “organic” is different, because we do have standards for what qualifies. Could you explain what has to happen for a food to merit that label?

It's somewhat complicated in terms of its history. The U.S. government got involved in the '90s with the definition of organic and created the National Organic Program. Some felt that those standards were watered down; for others, it limited what they could say about their own product. The standards have three levels, basically, the first one is 100 percent organic -- that’s the highest and it means things like no herbicides, no pesticides, no sewage sludge, etc. Then there is the USDA organic which allows for 5 percent of the product to come from a list of about 200 approved substances that are not organic. This is extraordinarily controversial too, whether that should exist at all, and what is or is not on that list. And then there is “made with organic ingredients” which allows it to be dropped down to 70 percent, and you get a situation like the example in the book where you can have corn chips that are made with the organic corn but fried in conventional oil. There are those who ignore that label because they don’t want the USDA identity on their product, because they consider that their standards are higher. But those who want to call their stuff organic, and sell more than $5,000 worth of a product a year, must meet those standards or they’re violating the law.

I suppose a better question to ask would be, what are the main issues you’ve found with the USDA’s label?

I like that question better too, because I’m not all that concerned with these differentiations. What I’m concerned with most are the frailties of the certification process. To be considered organic, a third-party certifier certifies that the operation that’s creating the product is doing so according to the standards of the USDA and of the U.S. government.  The rigor of those inspections differs case by case -- that’s one problem. Another problem is that certification is a business. And so the potential for conflict of interest is huge, since the outfit being certified is paying for that certification in a competitive market. By definition, that puts the certifier in a position of being concerned about keeping the job. The third of three really big problems with the certification process is that so much food now is in the globalized food chain, so from a U.S. point of view, food is coming in certified organic from all over the world, and these certifiers, that are U.S.-based, rarely do that certification on-site. They shop it out to local certifiers. Definitions are different about what the regulations mean, and outside of the United States, unfortunately, the standards for honesty are not necessarily at the level that you and I may wish.

Are there any safeguards in place against that conflict of interest?

Sure there are. You can go to Denmark where the government does the certifying. Or you can go to Austria, where the farmers get a subsidy if they’re growing organic, and then they are inspected by government inspectors and if it turns out that they are compromised, they have to pay back the cash subsidy. So there are various techniques that are in place around the world that could be employed in the U.S., rather than this privatized certification system.

But what about in the USDA itself -- are there any safeguards? Or else how do they justify doing it this way?

Well, they justify it -- and this is what they told me, I’m not speaking for them -- by saying they require the certification companies to meet their standards and they spot-check them, and that they’re confident that they’re doing an appropriate job. What I found shocking during investigation was the lack of transparency and the opaque manner in which the certification companies operate. This was all documented in the book. But in order for me to learn what we’re talking about now, I had to find my own avenues to get the information, because the certification companies shut down. They will not talk.

It seems like a lot of what you found really emphasizes the importance of knowing where your food comes from, and eating locally. Would you say that globalization of the food system and the principles we normally associate with organic food are at odds?

Well, one could certainly make that argument. I know, because of my investigations in Bolivia for example, that you can get a fine organic black bean that’s sourced five thousand miles from my home in Oregon. That doesn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense to me, just in terms of practicality and use of resources: it’s got to get shipped and it happens that that is a good quality product, but it just as easily could be a product from as far away that isn’t good. However, to say that just because it’s local, it’s better, is not necessarily the case. If something is sprayed to the hilt with a pesticide or an herbicide that you consider problematic, it doesn’t matter if it was grown by your neighbor, and we have crooks right here in this country. I have a good example in the book from the same county I live in, in Oregon, where a guy was selling conventional corn as organic corn and it compromised the food chain because he was selling this as feed to local organic dairies in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon.

How was he able to get away with something like that?

Well, he ultimately didn’t get away with it, but one of the reasons he did goes back to the certification process. He used fraudulent certificates, counterfeit certificates that he created from real ones, and it’s an example of how relatively easy it is for a crook to take advantage of the system.

So that’s something that happens often?

We don’t know how often it happens, in part because the inspection system is understaffed and we have something like $28 billion worth of organic food being traded annually at this point in the U.S. and about 28 employees in the National Organic Program to handle investigations of such certificates. So we know that it’s easy to make these, but we don’t know how many crooks are out there. We know that when there’s money involved, it does bring out the crooks or the compromisers, somebody who may think that it really doesn’t matter that much if they don’t quite interpret the rules as strictly as you and I may wish them too, or as they were designed to be interpreted.

A 2012 New York Times article caused a lot of controversy by claiming that Big Food had come in and drained all meaning from the organic label. Many responded that while there are still a lot of problems with the label, local and organic is still a whole lot better than nothing. Where do you fall on the efficacy of the label as a whole? For example, for consumers walking through the store and looking for the best thing to buy?

I fear that it is inappropriately seductive. This is one of the things I’ve learned from interviews with shoppers, and I can even feel it myself, and maybe you can too: it looks good, like that must be better. And the problem with it, from my perspective, after my investigations, is not that we shouldn’t be eating organic -- we in my family strive for an organic pantry and fridge. It’s that what that label itself means is not well-understood by most consumers, in terms of the rigor of inspection and certification. And that’s what I set out to do, and I believe successfully did with the book, is show that just because that label is on there, it may be on there legally, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the product meets the shopper’s expectations.

Even Walmart is now starting to supply organic foods. Do you have a take on what that will mean for the label's integrity?

It’s not just Walmart. The greatest number of organic dollars are traded at Costco, and so Costco and Walmart are big into this, as are the traditional grocery store chains like Safeway, and they’re big into it because if you look at the curve of the last twenty years, the organic dollars spent have gone from a billion to that 28 billion. That’s just an extraordinary spike in twenty years, double digit increases every year recently, and so of course they’re embracing that. On the good side, you can say that means that more people are being introduced to what is arguably a healthier way to eat, and the prices are going down. However, if that means this volume continues to escalate and the bureaucracy that is supposed to keep check on the efficacy of the certification and inspection systems doesn’t grow exponentially, that doesn’t bode well. And then, at the same time, if what results from these kinds of draws, this kind of volume, is just factory farming becoming so-called organic, that has its own social consequences and issues that need to be thought through by the consumer, I believe.

So at an institutional level, what needs to happen to keep up? Is it just a matter of dedicating more money and time and staff?

Well, certainly the USDA or the government needs to spend more money staffing and funding the National Organic Program, that’s one thing that has to happen. The next thing that has to happen is that we need to rethink, as a society, the globalization of the food chain, and think about what kinds of problems exist in transport: the potential for cross-pollination of conventional and organic; the opportunity for the bad guys to take a organic shipment and dilute with the less expensive conventional and still call it organic; the opportunity to launder the product and to make use of counterfeit certificates -- when we’re operating in a global environment, and we have affluent countries like the United States drawing food stuffs from impoverished countries that are suppliers, that creates a dynamic that opens the door to the kinds of corruption that we are seeing. We also might want to take into consideration the social costs: Do you want to go to your local Whole Foods and buy something at an inflated price because of the way it’s packaged and offered and the environment of the Whole Foods, and have that product be something that came from a third-world environment where the workers involved in growing and processing it are making substandard wages? That’s a social cost to be considered that is exacerbated by the Costco/Walmart entrance into the organic sector.

It took you so long to get any sort of answers from food retailers and certification companies, and the ones you got weren’t very satisfactory. And your impetus for writing this book at all was that first you had to be savvy enough to notice that the organic walnuts you bought at Trader Joe’s were made in Kazakhstan, and that had to make you suspicious. For the average consumer going to the store right now, what should they be looking out for? Is there anyway for them to protect against some of these abuses?

I think there are a couple of things that you can do. One is, watch where that source country is. And that’s not to say that because something comes from some place like Kazakhstan it’s necessarily bad, but if you have a basic awareness of world current affairs, and you’re seeing the stuff come from a place that’s known for corruption like Kazakhstan, then you may be suspicious. Another really important clue is if there are multiple source countries listed. This apple juice is sourced in Argentina, China and California, so what the heck does that mean? And how is it that you should have faith in the veracity of the label, I suggest, when it is by definition impossible to trace because it’s mixed? So those are two examples. The third example is if you’re buying from a company that you’ve had good experiences with historically, whether it’s the retailer like Whole Foods or whether it is the product provider, a brand or whatever it is that you may chose or that you’ve chosen for years, and you’ve had success with the product, then you might have some sense of confidence and then give them a call -- most of them have 800 numbers -- and say, “Where did this come from?” And if they’re open and happy to talk with you about it then I would suggest that should give you a certain feeling of confidence. And if they say “I’m sorry” -- as so many of them say -- "but this is proprietary information,” then that should throw up the red flag pretty high, because what have they got to hide?

By Lindsay Abrams

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