An audit of seven major U.S. ports conducted by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General finds negligent inspections are failing to verify the status of products claiming to be organic.
According to the report released yesterday, the agency, which oversees the National Organic Program, “was unable to provide reasonable assurance that … required documents were reviewed at U.S. ports of entry to verify that imported agricultural products labeled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms,” the report notes, adding that the lack of controls at U.S. ports of entry “increases the risk that nonorganic products may be imported as organic into the United States and could create an unfair economic environment for U.S. organic producers.”
Auditors found that “confusion at the ports is so deep that some ‘organic’ shipments — legitimate or not — are fumigated after arrival with pesticides prohibited under USDA organic rules,” the Washington Post reports. In some cases where pests or diseases are detected in crops and the shipment’s owner opts to treat the load instead of accepting the return, “they are treated using the same methods and substances used for conventional products,” despite documents showing the products were grown under organic standards. “There are no special treatment methods for organic products,” the report notes. The practice can expose organic products to chemicals otherwise banned in organic production.
Last December, 36 million pounds of conventional soybeans were discovered to be fraudulently documented as organic, with at least 21 million pounds of the shipment entering the U.S. food supply.
According to the Post, USDA officials notified at least one independent organic certifier in the U.S. in August about fraudulent corn and soy coming from countries including Kazakhstan, Moldova, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine before being routed through Turkey. The fraudulent soybeans discovered last December were also shipped from Turkey.
U.S. organic farmers responded to the news with dismay. "The entry of fraudulent organics is the single greatest threat to our domestic farmers and to the public perception of organics as a whole that exists today," Anne Ross, farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute told the Post. "I fear that consumer confidence in the integrity of organic food is rapidly eroding, and that our domestic farmers are being swept away in this tide if the USDA does not act quickly."
The news also comes as Miles McEvoy, the chief of the USDA program, announced he is stepping down from his post at the end of the month. Over the course of his eight-year leadership, McEvoy has been the subject of heavy criticism by the Cornucopia Institute. In 2015, the group claimed McEvoy failed to enforce federal organic standards, gave favorable treatment to corporate agribusiness interests, and undermined the integrity of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory body authorized by Congress to help oversee the organic industry. The group questioned McEvoy's ethics again last year in an article written by the Cornucopia Institute's co-director, Mark Kastel: "Mr. McEvoy himself, at the USDA, has a slush fund, and has handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to organic certifiers and NGOs to help him with 'research and education' as well."
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