I've been excited to see that the organic food movement is growing. With more people interested in organic food, the supply has increased, and with that increase has come more imported organic foods. I know that I’m not the only one who has looked at organic foods imported from say, China, and wondered how organic the items really were.

Peter Laufer, author of "Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling," and George Kalogridis, an organic certification officer with EcoCert ICO, recently talked with NPR about the subject, and I found the article helpful. Here's what I learned.

Laufer is a skeptic of a lot of “organic” foods, especially since he knows that food with organic food labels has a higher price tag. He became highly suspicious when he found organic black beans from Bolivia, and a bag of organic walnuts from Kazakhstan.

He recounts his research into this topic in his book, where he recounts the difficulty he had getting straightforward answers to his questions when interviewing distributors and companies that certify organic foods.

He alarmed me when he explained that organic certifiers are not only paid by the organic farmers/companies to certify their products but also that it's a competitive field. If a company wasn’t happy with one certifier, it could simply go with another certifier. It’s not hard to see opportunity for abuse in such a system.

However, Laufer didn’t uncover much evidence in his book that there was a lot of fraud (though he remains convinced that there is). While the organic walnuts from Kazakhstan didn’t check out, the black beans did (he even flew out to meet the organic farmer who produced them).

In contrast, Kalogridis, the organic certification officer, pointed out that people are only suspicious of imported organic foods because they don’t realize how widespread the organic movement is. He pointed out that organic foods didn’t even originate in the U.S.

NPR mentions that while there have been cases of known fraud with imported organic food, there have also been cases of fraud within U.S. grown organic food. And while there is little evidence that fraud is widespread, the USDA is putting more resources into prevention.

My takeaway:

  • Fraud does happen in the food industry, organic or conventional. This is an unfortunate fact.
  • There may not be any more reason to suspect fraud from overseas sources than from U.S.-grown organics. But I’d still feel hesitant to buy imported organics from specific countries known to have high pollutants in the environment (and problems with corruption with imported goods in general).
  • There is a value to local organics. Produce from truly local farmers is becoming more and more available. These are the farms that you can visit yourself, and even volunteer at. This builds a level of trust that supersedes simply putting your trust in regulations.
  • While I am excited to see the organic movement growing all over the world, I think we should still place a priority on supporting U.S.-grown foods whenever possible. American farmers deserve our support, and it makes environmental sense too.

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