Organic? Yeah Right! The Truth Behind Some of Your Favorite Snacks
By Regan Talley
Just because the front of the bag might scream the phrase, “organic” and “all natural,” doesn’t mean it is. Growing up, my dad would spend hours (yes hours) shopping at “healthy” food chains like Whole Foods in an attempt to improve his health and the environment. My mom would roll her eyes as my dad bragged about the quality of pesticide free peppers and organic lettuce over their standard store counterparts. His logic was that because the food had a higher price tag and was found in health aisle at the supermarket, it MUST be healthier.
Well that’s not always the case. A yearlong audit conducted by the Office of Inspector General for US Department of Agriculture in September 2017, found that consumers who go out of their way to buy organic food may be getting ripped off . The report demands that the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which is housed within the USDA, “strengthens its controls over the approval of international arrangement for the import of organic products into the U.S.” . What AMS lacks is control, assertion and consistency. While there are certification standards the US holds to deem a product as “organic,” no one is double checking the label pasted on the package from foreign imports. The packaging and cost of an organic bag of spinach might make you believe you are making the “healthy” choice however, it actually might contain the same pesticides as the store brand bag sitting next to it. These shocking disparities in control pose a serious health and economic threat to consumers. The very chemicals that are sprayed on standard produce items that have led to various diseases are found on the products claiming to be free of them. It’s not fair that consumers are coughing up the extra cash for a misleading label. If the USDA placed more control in the approval of international products, mis-marked products would dissipate, and consumer satisfaction would improve.
In an article by Forbes detailing the disparities in organic labels, it discusses the growth of the health food industry since 1997 which is now, “valued at $35 billion” . As consumers, we believe that the governing regulatory body controlling our food holds the same standards for both domestic and foreign products. Unfortunately, the current system is “riddled with loopholes” . The article compared a domestic famer to an overseas distributor. If a famer knowingly falsified the label on his product stating that is was organic when further examination proves the exact opposite, the farmer would, “lose organic certification and an $11,000 fine” . On home soil, the USDA has the power to oversee and convict any food producer that violates its rules. Overseas on the other hand, the USDA is virtually powerless. It has no such authority and the rules created in the U.S. can’t be implemented in foreign courts. This leads to a severe lack of transparency and control within the government-run organization. Perhaps if there was a collaboration effort on an international level to create “organic” standards for not only the U.S. but also its overseas partners, the producers within foreign markets would be forced to comply and mark its products accordingly.
There also appears to be a lack of responsibility for who should be held accountable. While the USDA isn’t legally held responsible for, “the conduct of certifying agents,” it gives them to power to mark items as organic without management overseeing their decision . There is no incentive for the agent to double check the manufacturing of the product and the chemicals used on it to ensure its genuinely organic. The very government organization that created the meaning behind the “organic” label is breaking consumer trust by not following through on the very standards it created.
The USDA and more importantly AMS, has a huge public relations crisis on its hands that threatens consumer trust, health and safety. Until the organization can take responsibility for the severe disparities in the quality of products marked with the signature “organic” stamp and implements more control in the approval of products from international manufacturers, consumers are left to fend for themselves in supermarkets.
 Liu, Chenglin. “Not All Organic Food Labels Are Created Equal.” Forbes. November 12, 2015. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/11/12/not-all-organic-food-labels-are-created-equal/#5af09d981955
“ National Organic Program- International Trade Arrangements and Agreements.” Office of Inspector General, United States Department of Agriculture. September 2017. Accessed February 12, 2019.
Photo originally taken from USDA’s AMS Instagram account and edited with PicStitch
Original image: Friar, Dan. USDA AMS. August 11, 2018. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://www.instagram.com/p/BmV7u86hiiW/