Ask Alice: Organic authenticity

Posted on 04. Feb, 2016 by in Ask Alice

Q: Some people are skeptical of the authenticity of some imported organic ingredients.   How do we know the products are actually organic and not fraudulent?

A:  Whenever we trust a third-party certifier to do our due diligence for us we are taking a risk, but it’s impossible on a practical level to evaluate everything first hand.  That’s true whether we are looking at National Organic Program USDA Organic certification, non-GMO claims, farm practices certifications or any other claims where we rely on someone else’s expertise to validate a choice.  Generally we don’t have the information to check the claims ourselves, and we don’t have the authority to question them even if we doubt them.  If the NOP run by the USDA says something is certified organic, it is.

My dealings with local organic farmers and products here in Oregon have been nearly always positive.  I say nearly – there were a couple of frauds but they were exposed eventually, and the frauds were distributors, not the farmers themselves.  What is striking, though, is that following the money on a larger scale can lead to some troubling conclusions.  Potentials gains from fraud are high, penalties for violations are low, and there is no boots-on-the-ground testing.  Selling a single truckload of soymeal as organic if it is conventional can easily net more than the potential fine ($11,000) for a violation. And it’s unlikely that it will be caught or investigated or prosecuted anyway.

So while I am happy to use organic ingredients whose origins I trust, once the supplier is from outside the region things get a lot muddier. Products coming in from Canada may have come in from Asia to a Canadian port and only appear to be from Canada.  And technically, those products are just as organic as the grain grown down the road at Greenwillow’s farm where we can see the crop out the window.

A speaker at a recent conference assured the audience that there would be no trouble with the paperwork on the organic ingredients his company was selling, regardless of the country of origin.  Is this what we want?  No paperwork trouble, or clean product?  Ideally we want both, and that is what the USDA’s NOP program aims to guarantee.

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