Your ‘Organic’ Food Might Have a Dirty Secret

American consumers spend about $43 billion annually on certified organic food, which can cost up to 128 percent more than conventional food. But a new investigation shows some of that “organic” food may be fraudulently certified and the USDA looked the other way.

An investigation by personal finance site NerdWallet showed that not only is fruit being incorrectly labeled as organic, but that the entire certification process is based on a conflict of interest that allows such abuse of the system to happen.

NerdWallet’s prime example is the Costa Rican pineapple grower Del Valle Verde Corp, which was certified as organic by a USDA-accredited certifier while they were using non-organic pesticides, as well as other practices that would normally have disqualified them from certification.

A surplus in organic pineapples first raised the alarm at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The Costa Rican government launched an investigation with included 1,500 pages of evidence that USDA-accredited certifier PrimusLabs falsely certified Del Valle Verde Corp as an organic grower.

The USDA, however, closed the case without taking any action, seriously damaging the reputation of their certification in the process.

Using documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act, NerdWallet writer Richard Read found that about 400,000 pineapples mislabeled as organic were shipped to the U.S. and Canada to grocery stores including Safeway, Ralph’s and Fred Meijer.

The implications of this are a lot bigger than a few pineapples, or even a few hundred thousand. The result of this type of fraud is twofold: First, consumers are not getting what they’re promised and paying more for products that don’t fulfill their expectations. They end up paying higher prices without the health or environmental benefits of organic products.

On the other hand, honest organic farmers have to lower their prices to compete with fraudulent farmers who are selling cheaper products at a higher price than they should, but still low enough to affect competition.

“When this cheap stuff comes onto the market, it drops the price for everybody,” Read told Mic. “These honest farmers get undercut. [Even big organic U.S. growers] will get clobbered by competition from Mexico…The victims here are the consumers and the honest farmers who are getting undercut, and the taxpayers who are supporting the USDA who is not doing its job.”

The problems with organic certification and the potential for fraud are built right into the system itself.

The USDA has a list of 80 accredited certifiers from which growers and processors choose. The problem is not only that the growers and producers can select whichever certifier they want, but that there’s a clear financial conflict of interest in this relationship.

Certifiers are paid by producers anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and get a percentage of their sales. Essentially, the certifiers are inspecting and approving their own customers.

To avoid fraudulently certified foods, NerdWallet suggests several measures consumers can take. For example, organic watchdog groups can help identify growers with spotty certification records.

Shoppers should also consider their reasons for buying organic. If those reasons are for the health benefits, many factors impact the nutritional value and pesticide levels of foods. To avoid pesticides, consumers can consult the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

And, of course, buying food grown locally like at a farmers market allows shoppers to get more insight into where exactly their food is coming from and what practices and processes are used to grow it.

Photo Credit: Unsplash

126 comments

Greta L
Greta L13 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Lisa M
Lisa M19 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M19 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M19 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M19 days ago

Thanks.

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JoAnn P
JoAnn Paris22 days ago

Thank you for this very interesting article.

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michela c
michela c23 days ago

Good to know, thank you

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Sophie A
Sophie A26 days ago

Thanks for sharing

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Carole R
Carole R27 days ago

I have heard this before ... that organic isn't always really organic.

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hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD29 days ago

tyfs

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