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Beware of Imported Produce and the USDA NOP Organic Label

In September 2017 the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a report on its audit on the National Organic Program (NOP).  (https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/01601-0001-21.pdf) 

It acknowledges that imported produce labeled as “organic” is lacking adequate controls, audits and oversight to protect the integrity of the organic label.   The Inspector General found: 1. “Organic Standards’ Equivalency Determination Process Was Not Fully Transparent,  2. NOP Organic Import Documents Were Not Verified at US Ports of Entry, 3. Controls Over Organic Products Fumigated at US Ports of Entry Were Inadequate, and 4. Onsite Audits Not Conducted Timely.”  We recommend consumers only buy produce grown in the USA for many reasons.  Besides the misrepresentation involved with the USDA NOP Organic label on imported produce, products grown outside the USA are not subject to the same level of environmental protections of water and air (ie. Stringent USA EPA regulations pertaining to heavy metals, air pollution, contaminated water, pesticide regulations, etc).

Below are a few more details on the astonishing findings and implications in that report. 

OIG serves as both an administrative whistleblower and a consumer ombudsman within the USDA.  The gist of the audit report is that NOP failed to do its job of proving that imported organic produce actually met NOP standards all the way from the grower to the consumer.  This wrongdoing has at least devalued and at worst invalidated the NOP Organic label.  One recent parallel to this situation might be the auto airbags that were certified as safe until they were recalled.  How many people think NOP Organic produce or airbags are safe now is an open question.

At one level, NOP did not ensure that imported products bearing the Organic label were grown with environmental protections from adverse water and soil conditions.  This oversight failure means, for example, some imported produce may have been grown in soils contaminated with heavy metals and/or synthetic chemicals.  We know that not all countries have high standards for soil contamination, so there could easily be a problem here.  It means also that genetically modified (GM) crops probably were shipped into the US with the Organic label and then fed to animals sold as Organic.

At another level, NOP failed to track imported produce from our border to the consumer.  This tracking failure means that, when border inspectors made rational, required decisions to spray or fumigate infested organic shipments, the Organic label remained on that produce all the way to the consumer.  Neither NOP nor the consumer knew what chemicals were on the produce.

One startling implication from this report is that NOP wrongdoing produced global economic dislocations, while simultaneously demolishing consumer confidence in organic meat.  US farmers now grow mostly GM soybeans and corn, and thus organic meat producers must import large quantities of non-GM crops to feed their animals (https://ota.com/sites/default/files/indexed_files/OTATradeReport.pdf).  In 2011 Canada suppled 78% of non-GM soybeans, but in 2016 imports from Canada had declined to only 6% of the total.  Turkey, which exported no organic soybeans to the US in 2011 became the leader with 43% in 2016.  Even more dramatic changes occurred in organic corn imports.  Canada’s share decreased from 8% in 2013 to 4% in 2016, while Turkey went from 0% in 2013 to 74% in 2016.  Turkey became the dominant supplier of both commodities imported to the US in 2016 by increasing its 2015 “organic” soybean numbers 8-fold and its “organic” corn exports more than 3-fold.  Given all the disruptive forces acting in Turkey during that period, it is amazing to find their agricultural sector suddenly became so competitive in these international markets allegedly watched so carefully by NOP.  One can assume that Canadian producers lost in this disruption while Turkish growers enjoyed substantial economic gains.  The position of the US consumer of organic meat products is less clear, but one might reasonably compare faulty auto airbags to misleading NOP windbags in this instance.

NOP agreed with the OIG critique and is implementing all corrective measures that were recommended.  One could argue, therefore, that the system has corrected itself and the future safety of consumers is assured.  At Wild Soil® Almonds we do not share this optimism.  We tell our families they should buy produce grown in the USA where production methods are more transparent and accountable.  And, of course, we recommend the Wild Soil™ system as a superior method that offers safe, nutritious and tasty products.

                                                                                                           ---The Research Team