Are Those Really Organics at the Shelf?

March 29, 2010

Are consumers paying a hefty premium for organic foods, and not getting their money’s worth?

Are consumers paying a hefty premium for organic foods, and not getting their money’s worth? That’s the $26 billion question (annual sales of organic foods) that the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot answer with certainty.

What the federal agency is certain of is that oversight by the department’s National Organic Program has vast gaps that have allowed products falsely labeled as organic to continue to be sold for as long as 32 months, according to a New York Times account of a report by the inspector general of agriculture Phyllis K. Fong.

Now in a move akin to sticking a few more fingers in the dike, the program’s budget will increase this fiscal year and next to expand the staff to 40 employees, from 16, to improve oversight. As of July 2009, the program relied on 98 independent licensed agents to inspect and certify roughly 28,000 organic operations worldwide, the report said.

This coming September, these agents will begin to spot test organically grown foods for traces of pesticides. They will also conduct unannounced inspections of organic producers and processors, and will regularly review organic items in stores to see that they are labeled correctly, the Times reported further.

The ratio of inspectors to operations seems absurd to us at The Lempert Report. We don’t see how this directive can make much of an impact on an industry of this size. While we’ll accept whatever integrity it adds to the organic foods industry, we feel what would be a great deal more constructive would be a self-policing culture that paints the entire industry with the wholesomeness of the foods the majority of its members brings to market.

That means no more Horizon incidents. No food safety scares. No manipulation of loopholes in standards set up to protect animals and consumers. No threats to the purity of growing fields.

We’d like to see the industry call out its rogues and establish highly transparent processes, so people can feel trust in what they’re buying and the suppliers providing it. We’re not far from the day when anyone with Web access—a consumer or a supermarket buyer—could log onto the cameras at a chicken farm and see in real-time how the birds are treated, slaughtered and packed. That’s the ultimate accountability, but it shouldn’t take that much energy on the part of others to ensure that the organic foods industry is behaving itself.