Organic food now makes up more than 5% of total food sales in the United States—yet less than 1% of Americans meets the standards of organic practice. Despite rapid growth in organic farming, it’s not enough to meet demand, so many American organic food companies and retailers are turning to imports to fill the gap. But does “organic” mean the same thing in the U.S. as it does in other countries?
National Organics Program. “Consumers need to know that all agricultural products—whether produced domestically or imported—sold as organic in the United States must meet the rigorous U.S. organic standards,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) is responsible for developing consistent standards for foods that bear the USDA organic seal. These standards include producing organic foods and crops in a way that maintains or enhances soil and water quality while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Organic farmers and food producers can’t use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering, and must abide by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances when choosing pesticides or non-organic ingredients for use in processed organic foods (these ingredients can’t add up to more than 5% of the total product). A few things not on the “allowed” list? Artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
Establishing organic equivalency. Organic imports to the U.S. increased by nearly 25% between 2016 and 2017, with top imports including bananas, coffee, and olive oil—foods the U.S. doesn’t produce in large quantities—as well as corn and soybeans for livestock feed. In 2016, the U.S. imported organic products from 87 countries, with 43% of those imports coming from just five countries—Turkey, Mexico, Italy, Peru, and Ecuador.
Organic imports can be sold as organic in the U.S., as long as they meet NOP requirements. As with the U.S., many countries have their own organic standards and certification programs, and the NOP works with the Foreign Agricultural Service and Office of the United States Trade Representative to establish international trade arrangements. One type of arrangement is the “organic equivalency.”
The U.S. has equivalency arrangements with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Republic of Korea and Switzerland. When two countries recognize each other’s organic program as being equivalent, they can sell their organic products in either country with just one certification. For packaged retail products, labels or stickers must state, “Certified Organic By [name of the country’s certifier],” and can display the USDA organic seal, the country’s organic logo, or both.
“Equivalency agreements reduce duplicative fees and burdensome paperwork while upholding the highest standards of organic oversight, and help provide American consumers with year-round access to a diverse array of organic products that uphold the integrity of U.S. organic standards,” Batcha says, adding that these partnerships allow for spot-checking of organic products by both countries.
Oversight—and oversights. Whether or not there is an equivalency agreement, all food sold as organic in the U.S. is supposed to be produced and handled in accordance with U.S. standards. To make sure this happens, the USDA has accredited certifying agents in many foreign countries that help verify that imported products meet NOP requirements at all steps of the process, from the farm to post-harvest processing and handling. These foreign certifiers work with U.S.-based certifiers under USDA oversight. In spite of this system, an audit released in September 2017 by the USDA revealed the agency’s failure to make sure that imported organic foods actually met organic standards. Part of this was a failure to check documents and do audits, but even when imported crops did meet organic standards, in many cases they were fumigated upon arrival with pesticides not allowed under USDA organic regulations.
The import of “sham” organics—food falsely labeled as organic at the time of import—has been a particular problem with imports of corn and soy, which are much in demand as feed for organically raised livestock. In order for milk and meat to be sold as organic, the animals can only eat organic feed, and most feed corn and soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, which doesn’t qualify as organic.
In response, the NOP has launched a three-part plan for preventing and detecting fraud: strengthening training and accreditation programs, improving farm-to-market traceability and ramping up enforcement. Meanwhile, the OTA’s Global Organic Supply Chain Integrity (GOSCI) Task Force is developing a fraud prevention program for the organic industry in collaboration with the NOP and organizations involved in independent product certification and testing. “Organic now operates in a global market. Fraud is one of the biggest threats to that market, and it cannot be tolerated,” Batcha says. “Everyone has a role and a responsibility to detect and deter fraud.”
—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN