The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Uncertainty and dysfunction’ have overtaken USDA program for organic foods, key lawmaker says

The difficulty of detecting fraud in imported "organic" food means that it's hard to know what products can be trusted, a grain industry executive told a Senate committee on Thursday, as lawmakers prepare the next farm bill.

The testimony comes after news that millions of pounds of "organic" corn and soybeans have reached U.S. ports despite evidence that they were grown conventionally.

Given the current challenges of  enforcement at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “it is unreasonable to accept that grain being imported into the U.S. as organic has been adequately validated,” Kenneth Dallmier, president of Clarkson Grain, said in his testimony.

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry is collecting information as lawmakers prepare the next major agriculture legislation. It appears that one key lawmaker is ready to shake up the way the USDA regulates what can be sold as “organic.”

“It seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks. “These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organic from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their business in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts our producers and economies in rural America.”

The remarks from the chairman portend a legislative fight over USDA organic standards, one that pits small farmers, many of whom have embraced organic products as a means of financial survival, against larger agricultural companies that have sought to loosen organic rules in the name of efficiency and affordability. It was not clear what new technology Roberts was referring to, but whether to classify “hydroponics” as organic has become a contentious question among organic farmers.

The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren’t

Roberts also expressed frustration with fraudulent organic imports.

After hearing a year ago from constituents concerned about import fraud, Roberts said, he pushed for USDA action. It appears he didn't get what he was looking for.

“It is clear that if it takes this long to get action, something needed to change,” the senator said.

In recent years, an influx of “organic” corn and soybeans from overseas has cut profits for U.S. organic farmers and raised suspicions that some of the shipments are “organic” in name only.

Millions of pounds of apparently fake ‘organic’ grains convince the food industry there may be a problem

Though the United States is a major grain exporter, when it comes to organics, it is a major importer. Last year, more than 50 percent of organic corn and more than 70 percent of organic soybeans in the country were imports. That represents about a million acres of crops, Dallmier estimated.

With prices down about 25 percent, many U.S. organic grain farmers have complained that some exporting countries are shipping more than they can actually grow.

“The numbers weren’t adding up,” Dallmier said in an interview.

Why your 'organic' milk may not be organic

Then, last month, The Washington Post reported on three major shipments of corn and soybeans that were sold as “organic” despite evidence to the contrary. The three shipments, each involving millions of pounds of “organic” corn or soybeans, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities.

Since then, the USDA has “decertified” two of the companies involved in the shipments. Three Democratic senators — Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) — have asked for the USDA's Office of the Inspector General to examine enforcement of organic import standards. And the Organic Trade Association, a major industry group, has set up a task force to propose remedies.

Among the proposals for detecting fraudulent organic imports that industry officials have drafted: adding USDA staff at overseas ports deemed to be high-risk, using electronic tracking devices that would follow a product from farm to customer, and raising the penalties for companies caught cheating.