Blind Trust: How Confident Should Consumers be in the USDA Organic Label?

A recent Washington Post report about the discovery of fraudulent “USDA Organic” products from a Turkish grain and oilseed handler has sparked concern in the legal and agricultural worlds alike. But this case is not an outlier—millions of pounds of falsely-labeled organic goods may have been imported to the U.S. in the last year alone. Turkey is one of our largest "organic" importers—and the source of numerous complaints within the organic industry.

The Turkish grain handler, Beyaz Agro—which has since had its organic certification revoked—sold a 16,250-metric ton shipment of "organic" soybeans to the United States. However, an investigation revealed the soybeans had been fumigated with aluminum phosphide, a substance banned by the National Organic Program.

This report, among others, points to a bigger issue: How confident should consumers be that the USDA really has the resources to certify organic products?

While consumers are not wrong to assume that a product labeled “USDA Organic” is indeed organic, most consumers would be surprised that the inspection requirements behind the “USDA Organic” seal are not very rigorous or common.

Several issues with the USDA’s organic requirements are worth mentioning:

1.) There are a very small number (80, in fact) of certifying agents worldwide (that is, agents the USDA allows to certify an operation as organic);

2.) The farmer chooses the certifying agent and is responsible for the agent’s fee;

3.) Inspections conducted by the certified agents only occur annually and are rarely unannounced; and 

4. The USDA audits its agents’ records every two and a half years.

The demand for high-priced “USDA Organic” products provides a strong incentive for fake organic products or products that follow most of the “USDA Organic” guidelines. Fake “USDA Organic” products harm consumers and farmers; honest farmers spend more time and money to comply with the rules to be certified as “USDA Organic,” and consumers pay more for a product that may not be as advertised.

Consumers should not be the only group questioning the USDA’s resources to certify organic goods. Retailers and processors are in an ideal position to effect change by: (1) independently verifying the “USDA Organic” seal and marketing that verification to consumers; (2) demanding the USDA implement more thorough inspection procedures on organic goods; or (3) competing with the “USDA Organic” seal by creating their own seal of approval for truly organic goods.

In a time where consumers have demonstrated that where their food comes from matters, retailers and processors stand to gain if the USDA does not step up. 


This is a guest blog post by Cassee Layne, summer law clerk at Janzen Agricultural Law LLC.