A few weeks ago, Randy Constant of Chillicothe, Missouri pleaded guilty to selling over $140 million worth of certified organic crops. The problem? They weren’t organic at all. Over the course of about 7 years, Constant’s companies Organic Land Management and Jericho Solutions knowingly sold soybeans, corn, and grains that were laden with toxic pesticides, nitrogen, and other harmful chemicals.
The Organic Food Scandal
His guilty plea comes on the heels of three more farmers who pled guilty to fraudulent sales of organic grains. Since 2010, all of these farmers admitted to selling grain that was marketed as organic, even though they knew that it was not. These farmers generated millions of dollars by selling their products at premium prices under the label “certified organic.”
Farmers seeking an organic seal must go through a vigorous three-year certification process. They are prohibited from using methods such as “genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.” (That’s right. We actually have to tell farmers not to use sewage sludge when growing their crops. Imagine a substantial eye roll.)
Constant, however, admitted in court documents that “at least 90% of the grain was either entirely non-organic or a mix of organic and non-organic grain that he either grew himself or purchased from other farmers.”
Mark Kastel, an industry watchdog, called the scam “jaw-dropping,” going on to say this:
The number of years they were able to operate at that scale is a betrayal to honest, ethical organic practitioners. Not only do they have to compete against this unfairly, but it tarnishes the reputation of the organic label. It’s a gross betrayal of consumer trust.”
What’s worse, these are commercial farms that sell in bulk to only a few customers. Most of these customers then processed the crops to use in other products which were “certified organic.” Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office estimate that there are tens of thousands of victims who bought the products, “for which they likely paid a premium.”
And we often pay a premium for the simple privilege of knowing exactly what’s in our food. We trust foods that are labeled as certified organic to be free of pesticides, GMOs, nitrogen, and (apparently) sewage sludge. As it turns out, even the food that’s labeled organic can’t be trusted.
A History of Fraud
And this isn’t the only time it’s happened. In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a study that found nearly 40% of food sold in the U.S. that was labeled “organic” tested positive for restricted pesticides.
It’s also important to note that much of the organic food sold in the U.S. is imported from abroad. According to reporter Anna Casey, about 75% of our organic soybeans and nearly half our organic corn is imported from other countries. Many of those crops are used to raise beef and poultry.
And that would be fine, except that regulators have failed spectacularly in making sure organic food from abroad is actually organic. A federal audit in 2017 found that the USDA was “unable to provide reasonable assurance” that required documents for organic food were even being checked.
That same year, The Washington Post reported that 36 million pounds of ordinary soybeans were shipped from Ukraine to Turkey to California. At some point during shipping, the regular beans had been labeled “USDA Certified Organic,” increasing their value by about $4 million dollars. According to the report, grains and corn that were fraudulently labeled as organic had also been shipped to the U.S. from Eastern Europe.
Turkey is one of the largest exporters of organic products to the United States, said the Post.
Organic animal products are supposed to come from animals that eat only organic feed. But the majority of the falsified corn and soy went to major suppliers, contaminating things like chicken, eggs, beef, milk, and butter. Organic food is sold to consumers at up to 50% the price of non-organic food, so the temptation to falsify labels is significant.
Restaurants can be even worse, with vague guidelines for what constitutes an “organic” menu item. As long as restaurants “make an effort” to use organic ingredients, they can say anything they want. There’s no definition of what constitutes organic, and no one tasked with enforcing the rules. The worst thing that can happen to a restaurant that falsely claims its food is organic? A letter from the National Organic Program asking them to stop.
As the New York Times revealed last year, a restaurant can sell a burger that uses a 75% organic patty and fully non-organic toppings and condiments and call it organic. And unlike retail foods, restaurants don’t need to go through any process to make the claim. They can simply hang a sign that says “organic” and immediately increase profits.
The process for obtaining a USDA Organic certificate is rigorous. It takes years of inspections, planning, and documentation. Farmland must be proven to be chemical-free for several years before organic crops can be grown, and farmers must demonstrate a plan to grow naturally in addition to preventing contamination from outside sources.
Nevertheless, once a farmer has obtained a certification, there are several shortcomings in the USDA’s enforcement and regulation. For starters, inspections are generally announced several days or even weeks ahead of time, allowing farmers an opportunity to “clean up” before an inspector arrives.
And although there are simple testing methods to determine if organic foods have been contaminated by prohibited chemicals, testing is rare. Certifying agents are only required to conduct tests on five percent of the operations they certify. And they get to choose the operations. Which brings me to my next issue.
Perhaps the most absurd part of the certification process is that farmers get to choose and hire their own inspection companies! Talk about the fox guarding the hen house. Imagine an athlete who hires his own referees, or a lawyer who hires his own judge. Would that seem honest and impartial? The opportunity for collusion is huge, and with so much money at stake, there’s more than enough motivation for organic farmers to play dirty.
The opportunity to exploit the system is even greater for imported foods, with more middlemen and fewer chances for inspection.
And if you need any more proof that the USDA is failing miserably to ensure that organic food is indeed organic, consider this: Randy Constant’s scheme went undetected for more than half a decade, and it wasn’t the USDA or an inspection agent who discovered the scam. It was a suspicious customer who tested the crops for GMOs himself.
What Can We Do?
So, if we can’t even trust the “USDA Certified Organic” labels, what can we do? We’ve already learned how GMO labeling falls far short of being transparent; how can we avoid harmful toxins and GMOs without being tricked?
The first and best way is to grow your own food. Starting a garden isn’t as hard as you think, and there’s no better way to guarantee that your food is natural and organic than to grow it yourself. But we know that you can’t grow everything on your own.
That’s why it’s important to shop local! Check out your local farms or visit your town’s farmers market. Not only will you be supporting small, local businesses, you’ll be able to talk directly to the people responsible for growing your food.
Be sure to do some research. Just because something says it’s organic doesn’t mean it is – you can order a roll of 500 “certified organic” stickers on Amazon for about 13 bucks. And just because something doesn’t say that it’s organic doesn’t mean it isn’t. Many small farmers can’t afford to become certified, despite all-natural, organic farming practices.
Watch out for “green-washing.” More and more companies are using confusing and misleading labels and marketing to make you think that a product is organic, even when it isn’t. When you see lots of green packaging, leaf symbols, and words like “natural,” stay alert! These are just some of the ways in which corporations will try to trick you into buying their products – and to pay a premium price.
Know your terms. When you see things like “free-range,” “hormone-free,” or “non-gmo,” remember that they aren’t necessarily organic. Many people can get confused by all the terminology we use to describe the origins of our food. Make sure you know exactly what the label means so that you can stay in control of what you put into your body.
Finally, it’s important that we make our voices heard! The “USDA Certified Organic” label has been considered the gold standard of organic labeling since its inception in 2002. With proper oversight and more robust vigilance, the USDA can make these labels trustworthy again.
The Alliance for Natural Health has put together an easy-to-use form that will literally send a message to the USDA’s National Organic Program on your behalf. It will also send messages to your government representatives, demanding that the USDA aggressively address the sweeping epidemic of organic fraud.
What we put into our bodies is important! Our health starts with nutrition, and we deserve transparency when it comes to our food. A cord of many strands is not easily broken, and when we stand together, we CAN make a difference.
An organic farmer has pleaded guilty to selling over $140 million of “USDA Certified Organic” crops that weren’t actually organic.
This is yet another scandal involving fraudulently labeled organic food.
The USDA has demonstrated a complete inability to properly regulate and enforce organic food standards.
There are several ways you can take action, including writing to the USDA and government representatives, and taking extra care when buying food.