Can You Trust That Organic Label On Imported Food? : The Salt A new book claims the organic label can't be trusted, especially on food that's imported. Yet there is a global system for verifying the authenticity of organic food, and it mostly seems to work.

Can You Trust That Organic Label On Imported Food?

Can You Trust That Organic Label On Imported Food?

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Investigators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have discovered cases of organic fraud abroad as well as in the U.S. In 2013, 19 farmers or food companies were fined a total of $87,000 for misusing the organic label. Mark Andersen/Rubberball/Corbi hide caption

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Mark Andersen/Rubberball/Corbi

Investigators at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have discovered cases of organic fraud abroad as well as in the U.S. In 2013, 19 farmers or food companies were fined a total of $87,000 for misusing the organic label.

Mark Andersen/Rubberball/Corbi

Maybe you've wondered, while looking at the price tag on some organic produce, whether that label is telling the truth.

Peter Laufer, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, doesn't just wonder. He's an outright skeptic, especially because the organic label seems to him like a license to raise prices. And also because those products are arriving through supply chains that stretch to far corners of the world.

The U.S. imports organic soybeans from China, spices from India, and dried fruits from Turkey. "It just screams to my perhaps prejudiced, cynical, journalist's mind: Is there anything wrong with this?" Laufer says. "This needs some checking."

Two products recently caught Laufer's attention when they showed up in his kitchen: a can of organic black beans from Bolivia and a bag of organic walnuts, which turned out to be rancid, labeled "Product of Kazakhstan."

Laufer's mental fraud alarm went off. "I've done a lot of work in the former Soviet bloc, and when you look at the 'corrupt-o-meter,' it doesn't get much worse than Kazakhstan," he says. Bolivia, he says, isn't much better.

So Laufer tried to find out exactly where those products came from. As he recounts in his new book, Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling, he interrogated store managers, distributors and the company that certified the beans as organic. He had a hard time getting answers, which made him even more suspicious. "It seems to me if everything is clean as a whistle, then you'd be proud to say where the food came from."

Laufer says that's the first reason to distrust organic food. The second is a conflict of interest that's built into the system, at least in the U.S.

The companies that inspect organic farmers and processors, and certify their products as organic "are paid by those that they certify," he says. "And there is competition among the 'certifiers.' So you can imagine, if the inspection is a little harsh, the company or the farm could say, 'Hey, there are other places I can do business with that wouldn't put me through this kind of rigor.' "

Laufer is convinced that organic fraud is common — but his book doesn't actually uncover much evidence of it.

The beans checked out. Laufer flew to Bolivia, had a nice conversation with the farmer who probably grew them, and came away convinced that those beans were organic.

The walnuts from Kazakhstan, on the other hand, remain a mystery. After that first rancid batch, Laufer never spied any more Kazakh walnuts in the store. The U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated and found no evidence of organic walnut production in Kazakhstan.

A Trader Joe's customer service representative told Laufer that the company buys walnuts from Kazakhstan when it runs out of organic walnuts from California. But a spokesman for the company tells NPR that Trader Joe's never got organic walnuts from Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, yes. But not Kazakhstan.

In their response to Laufer, organic industry executives say that the word "organic" is far more trustworthy than most labels you see on groceries. Unlike "natural," for instance, it really means something.

Organic farmers have rules to follow, and third-party certifiers inspect their operations to make sure they're following the rules. Those certifiers also test a certain percentage of the product each year for illicit use of pesticides. Although certifiers are paid by the companies that they certify, their work is audited by the USDA.

"We have a covenant with our consumers that we have certification that can trace any product from the store shelf back to the field where it was grown," says George Kalogridis, an organic certification officer with Ecocert ICO, an organic certifier that's based in France and operates globally.

According to Kalogridis, many people are suspicious of organic imports because they don't realize how widely the ideas of organic farming have spread — and that those ideas didn't originate in the U.S. in the first place.

Kalogridis has firsthand experience with global organic production. About 30 years ago, he set up an organic produce business in Florida. When sales really took off, in the 1990s, he needed to find more suppliers. "We were, quite literally, running out of product," he says.

So he embarked on a search for more organic farmers, and found some in Mexico and Argentina. Organic missionaries, many of them from Europe — the birthplace of organic farming — had already been traveling the world, spreading the gospel of pesticide-free agriculture. Organic certifiers also were expanding internationally. Together, they provided the foundation for a global boom in international organic trade.

Kalogridis ended up supplying a hungry American market with organic imports of all kinds. "I went from handling half a dozen ingredients to almost 300 ingredients," he says. "People would say, 'Thank you for finding this; can you go find that?' "

USDA investigators have found cases of organic fraud, but they've discovered it here in the U.S., as well as abroad. There's little evidence that fraud is widespread, but USDA, which oversees the organic program, is now putting more resources into preventing it. The budget for the USDA's organic program was boosted by 40 percent this year, and a big chunk of that increase will be devoted to "compliance and enforcement."

In recent years, the USDA has been getting about 200 complaints each year about organic products that somebody suspects really aren't organic. Last year, 19 farmers or food companies were fined a total of $87,000 for misusing the organic label.

Correction July 25, 2014

An earlier version of this story stated that last year, the USDA fined 19 farmers or food companies a total of $87 million for misusing the organic label. In fact, the total was $87,000.