Wisconsin's organic growers decry imposters

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

One of the biggest threats to U.S. organic farming, those in the industry say, comes from products labeled “organic” but aren’t the real deal. 

In September, for instance, an inspector general audit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that safeguards for consumers were lacking for products coming from overseas. 

The audit also said some imported organic produce shipments were fumigated with pesticides at the border, in violation of organic standards.

Jodi Reeves, an intern  at Wellspring Farm in Newburg, harvests chives.

Not every shipment of fruits and vegetables was doused with chemicals, but if pests or disease were found, some of the products were treated with pesticides even if they were labeled organic. 

A Washington Post investigation found that non-organic corn and soy — with organic labels — were flooding into the United States.

The newspaper reported that millions of pounds of "organic" corn and soybeans had been shipped to the U.S. through Turkey despite evidence that the crops were grown conventionally. 

That kind of deception angers Randy Hughes, a farmer in Janesville.

“If foreign producers are beating us at our own game, so be it. But, damn it, if they are bringing in crap that’s not properly certified, that’s not acceptable,” said Hughes, whose farm produces the corn for Blue Farm organic corn chips.


Hughes runs a fifth-generation family farm. He doesn't want to be perceived as bashing foreign products, but he takes the organic label very seriously because his reputation and livelihood depend on it. 

“The organic industry has always been about integrity," he said. 

Although products bearing the “USDA Organic” seal usually come from the U.S., large amounts of organic corn, soybeans, coffee and other commodities are from other countries.

"Our audit found that (USDA) needs to strengthen its controls over the approval and oversight of international trade arrangements and agreements for the import of organic products," the inspector general's office said. 

The problems undermine consumer confidence, said Mary Ann Ihm with the Wellspring organic farm in West Bend.

Various vegetables are offered for sale at Wellspring Farm.

Wellspring provides food for 135 households, farmers markets and restaurants. Its products are grown on the farm that's been in business for 30 years. 

“There should be high standards for organics, and I love those standards,” Ihm said.

But the U.S. organic industry is at risk from fraudulent imported products, according to Mark Kastel, director of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based group that closely follows the industry. 

Caleb Trainor, farm manager at Wellspring Farm in Newburg, checks cherry tomatoes, squash, gourds and herbs.

“Organic farmers are having to compete with a grotesque scale of importation that’s quadrupled over the last few years. The imports are coming from China, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc states where there are endemic levels of commercial fraud,” Kastel said.

It’s called “organic alchemy” when conventionally grown crops, overnight, become “organic” with some changed paperwork and a label.

“For more than a decade, we at Cornucopia have been asking the USDA to investigate fraudulent imports,” Kastel said.

“If the USDA doesn’t start enforcing organic standards, then American organic farms are going to get wiped out,” he added.

The USDA did not return a Journal Sentinel call seeking comment. The inspector general’s investigation found a lack of transparency in organic standards equivalency between the U.S. and foreign governments that could result in reduced consumer confidence.

The audit recommended that USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service strengthen its controls over organic imports.

California is the No. 1 organic state, with more than 2,700 farms. Wisconsin and New York are the only other states with more than 1,000 organic farms — including 1,276 in Wisconsin.

When you see the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” seal on food, the item should be 95% or more organic, meaning it’s free of pesticides and synthetic chemicals. The remaining 5% of the ingredients must be on a USDA-approved list.

When shopping for organics, experts say the labels are a starting point for making informed choices, but often more homework is necessary. 

Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the Department of Food Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says she’s seen organic-food packages with up to 16 stickers or icons on them, certifying all kinds of things.

But "just looking at the stickers isn’t going to tell you the entire story if you don’t know what they actually mean. 'USDA Organic’ is something I can look up and find the criteria,” Theis said.

Peter Laufer, author of the book “Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling,” is skeptical of some of the claims.

His research began, simply enough, with a can of organic black beans from Bolivia and a bag of walnuts, labeled as organic and which turned out to be rancid, from Kazakhstan.

Laufer traced the beans back to the farm where they came from, or one close to it. 

After meeting with the farmer, he was convinced the beans were grown in accordance with U.S. organic standards.

The walnuts, on the other hand, didn’t pass the sniff test. The U.S. Agriculture Department investigated and couldn’t find any evidence of organic walnut farming in Kazakhstan.

Laufer is skeptical of the businesses that inspect organic farms and processors, and certify products as organic, because they’re paid by the operations they certify.

It’s an inherent conflict of interest, he said, and the inspection process can vary from very intense and hands-on to a cursory look at files in an office.

To label produce as organic, producers must adhere to strict standards regarding sprays.

“I don’t think there’s a bonanza of crooked behavior plaguing the organic sector,” Laufer said, but there are some “bad actors and sloppy behavior.”

His advice for consumers: It’s best if you know the farm where something comes from, or at least know it’s a farm in the local area that can be held accountable.

“Be really cautious on stuff coming from far away, from multiple sources, and from some outfit that you don’t have reason to believe is trustworthy,” he said.

Violations of the organic rules can result in fines up to about $11,000.

That’s not much of a penalty for a big farm or processor, but there can be criminal implications for making fake organic products.

In 2012, for instance, a California fertilizer producer was sentenced to more than six years in prison — for mail fraud — after selling products with synthetic ingredients that he claimed were entirely organic.

Officials said they found thousands of gallons of aqueous ammonia, an ingredient in synthetic fertilizers, at his factory.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.