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Schumer can’t stomach fake organics

Joe Mont | July 19, 2017

Newly discovered shipments of fraudulently labeled organic products coming into the U.S. could hurt American farmers and consumers alike “if the USDA does not step up oversight of imported foods.”

That is the warning about mislabeled products from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and directed to the Department of Agriculture. It should “examine and immediately address the issue of organic fraud,” he said in a statement.

Foreign imports that illegally mislabel products undermine local farmers in the U.S., he emphasized.

“I am demanding that the USDA redouble their efforts and work to stop these producers in their tracks,” Schumer said. “Consumers must know that when they purchase a product that says ‘certified organic’ that they are getting what they paid for. The threat of phony organics entering our domestic market could undermine that confidence.”

Only certified producers may legally use the word “organic” or the USDA Organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. However, USDA reports have revealed that dozens of overseas producers have used fraudulent organic certificates to illegally market, label, or sell non-organic agricultural products as organic. At least two fraudulent Organic Certificates revealed by the USDA in 2012 and 2011 were of China-based production, and listed buckwheat among the agricultural products it fraudulently listed as certified organic.

Schumer pointed to a report earlier this month in the Washington Post on fraudulent grain shipments. The report exposed a shipment of 36 million pounds of non-organic soybeans and corn shipped from Ukraine and Turkey to California that were illicitly labeled as “USDA organic” when they reached the U.S. 

“The scam reportedly boosted soybeans prices by $4 million, while of course deceiving U.S. consumers and hurting U.S. organic producers, as more than 21 million pounds of the 36 million-pound shipment had already reached farms and mills by the time authorities acted,” Schumer said.

Since the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Action, the USDA has had the sole responsibility of certifying that products grown domestically and internationally meet organic standards. When a product is labeled “organic,” that means that farmers produce the food with methods that maximize soil health, conserve water, and reduce air pollution. Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones.

In 2002, the USDA established standards for organic products. Meeting these standards is the core of the organic certification process, a process that producers are required to complete before labeling a product as organic. The standards apply regardless of whether the product is from the U.S. or another country. USDA-approved state, non-profit and private agencies called “certifiers,” are charged with enforcing these standards to assure quality, prevent fraud, and to promote commerce.

“It’s imperative that the USDA enhance its oversight of organic products and ensure that products coming from foreign countries are indeed organic,” Schumer said.

 “I ask that you report on a variety of different issues raised by stakeholders ranging from procedures for the reporting of bad actors between the USDA and foreign agencies, USDA information sharing and enforcement protocols for current and future NOP equivalency arrangements,” he wrote in a letter last week to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.