Organically grown foods can be--and often are-- mixed with non-organic ingredients, genetically modified organisms and artificial ingredients despite boasting organic labels. Organic fruits and vegetables can comingle with conventionally raised produce, be exposed to pesticides and other contaminants in shipping, storage and on display at your local supermarket. And sometimes, products labeled organic aren't even organic at all, like the recent case of an Oregon man sentenced to more than two years in prison for selling conventionally raised corn as organic.
Beyond the health, environmental and flavor benefits in growing organic food, there's the enticing higher sticker price for farmers, distributors and retailers. Just ask any farmer who made the switch from conventional to certified organic how much more they're making with premium organic crops. Money certainly tempted Harold Chase, 55, of Eugene, OR who appeared to double his profits by selling more than 4.2 million pounds of non-organic corn as certified organic.
In 2009, Target was accused of falsely advertising soymilk as organic when it was not. The retail giant faced a similar situation just two years earlier when the USDA considered pulling the organic certification from Target's main organic dairy supplier—and the nation's largest—Aurora Dairy (supplier for Horizon), for selling non-organic milk marketed as organic for more than four years. Horizon had once been considered a leader in the organic food movement.
How does this happen?
Regulations, especially in livestock conditions, were loosely defined when the National Organic Program was implemented in 2002. While stricter rules exist now for meat, egg and dairy farms claiming to be organic, unresolved issues about ethical treatment still remain a contentious point in defining organic animal products.
The USDA organic labeling system has several levels of organic certification. You may recognize the USDA seal on the front of "100 percent certified organic" products. But they also allow the word "organic" on products that contain only 70 percent organic ingredients. A bag of corn chips, for example, could say something like "made with organic corn," but could contain no other organic ingredients (and could also contain genetically modified canola or soybean oil). So make sure you read your labels and ingredient panels on any processed foods.
"100 percent certified organic" means just that. But the USDA defines "organic" as meaning at least 95 percent of the product is organic, and therefore can also contain ingredients like "natural flavoring" which can—and often does—include MSG (monosodium glutamate), known for severe side effects including headaches and tinnitus. Because MSG naturally occurs in autolyzed yeast extract, it is considered a natural product. So is carrageenan, a seaweed substance known to cause adverse reactions like digestive disturbances. Other products that may or may not be labeled as more than just "natural flavors" include enzymes, gums and yeasts.
China is a major exporter of organic products from canned tomatoes to milk to dried fruit and tea. But their certifying program varies greatly from our own, and banned toxic pesticides and other chemicals have shown up in organic foods on several occasions. Just recently, Chinese officials announced that they will take extra measures to stop illegal fraudulent activities including misuse of certifications and counterfeit organic products.
Supermarkets are loaded with fruits and vegetables labeled organic. But field-testing to ensure compliance with organic standards is a rarity in the U.S. Organic produce fetches a higher sticker price, so it is highly appealing to both farmers and supermarkets, making us all victims of organic fraud likely at some point or another. Supermarkets that aren't certified organic can often co-mingle organic and conventional produce leading to residual pesticide contamination, even though they're not supposed to share storage or display units. Visiting and supporting a local farmer, either at a farmers market or through a CSA, greatly improves your chances of getting truly organic items.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger