When we buy an organic product, we are trusting that the many people who have touched this item — the farmer, shipper, co-packer, distributor and retailer — have all acted with integrity.
Very public and high-profile cases of organic fraud are rare, but we experienced this recently with Belcampo, a California-based organic meat producer and retail operator. A former employee revealed on an Instagram video, which has since gone viral, that the company’s Santa Monica location was fraudulently selling organic, grass-fed beef and organic chicken, a practice that he claims spans multiple levels of the company’s corporate structure and had been happening for months.
Belcampo co-founder Anya Fernald acknowledged in a written statement to the San Francisco Chronicle that the company had, in fact, mislabeled the products but claimed it was an isolated incident.
In short, what took place at Belcampo was completely and utterly inexcusable, and because this was an admired brand with a national reputation, many consumers throughout the country feel personally impacted by it. The betrayal is tangible.
Yet, for any organic consumer that feels outrage toward Belcampo — and there is no shortage of them on social media who do — their indignation should not stop there.
As we have been reporting for quite a while, fraud in the organic industry is a very serious problem, particularly with imported grains, and exists at a much larger scale than whatever Belcampo sold.
OFARM (Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing), a Minnesota-based organization that represents organic grain and livestock producers in 19 states, estimated that U.S. organic grain farmers lost approximately $400M in income from 2015 to 2017. Furthermore, a Cornucopia analysis found that in 2015, the U.S. imported over 3.5x as much organic corn from Turkey than the country produced.
All of this resulted in artificially low levels of organic grains and caused serious financial damage to domestic organic grain farmers who have been forced to compete on an unlevel playing field. And since millions of pounds of fraudulent corn and soy were for organic livestock, one can easily assume that the majority of animal products were also not legitimately organic.
Even though the USDA had been warned for years about fraudulent imports from OFARM, leading watchdog figure Mark Kastel and international policy analyst Anne Ross, only when the blockbuster Washington Post investigation came out in 2017 did the USDA take action, including revoking the organic certification from approximately 75% of the operators from the Black Sea region.
But even with the USDA taking more concerted steps to fight against fraud, the problem is far from being solved, largely because the philosophical approach hasn’t changed.
“We could eliminate the majority of all cheating if we had experienced auditors, took a risk-based approach and reallocated our resources more effectively, and made everyone aware that there would be severe consequences if they get caught cheating. Right now, there is none of that. So, the fear of getting caught is de minimis,” said Mark Kastel, Director of OrganicEye, an investigative arm of Beyond Pesticides. “Because we have insufficient spot testing, everything is paperwork-based and the vast preponderance of inspections are not unannounced, this whole process amounts to nothing more than ’organic inspection theater.’”
WE ARE THE GUARDIANS
Without question, what took place at Belcampo has damaged the credibility of the organic seal, and trust among consumers has been weakened. Hopefully, the company will suffer the consequences of knowingly deceiving its customers, as there were numerous employees at Belcampo who were aware of what was going on. For her part, co-founder Anya Fernald has refused to comment about whether she, too, knew about this practice at her company’s store.
Equally as unsettling is when there is a lack of will — on an institutional level — to create a strong deterrent to systemic fraud.
“The USDA has kowtowed to corporate agribusiness for decades, and although it is charged with protecting the public interest when it comes to organic, the lobbyists have the real power. In the 1980s, we thought we were launching something different when we created the Organic Foods Production Act, but the 2021 reality does not reflect this,” said Kastel.
What we have learned is that whether it is Belcampo or fraudulent organic corn from Turkey, individuals — more than the government — play an absolutely critical role in safeguarding organic.
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* Actress Zooey Deschanel has joined healthy-shopping rewards app Merryfield as Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer.
* The Expo West Virtual 2021 NEXTY Awards winners.
* Congrats to Miyoko Schinner, founder/CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery, on her new book The Vegan Meat Cookbook: Meatless Favorites. Made with Plants.
* Environmental nonprofit White Buffalo Land Trust has acquired a 1,000-acre ranch in Santa Barbara to create a regenerative ag research and education center.
* A group of health, environmental, and consumer organizations sent a formal petition to the FDA to ban all PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) that accumulate in the body.
* Amy’s Drive-Thru is opening its first two locations in Southern California.
* 7-ELEVEN has recently launched a variety of boxes with different mixes of organic produce.
* The moniker “responsibly sourced” apparently isn’t just for food. They’re now using it for natural gas.
Max Goldberg, Founder, Organic Insider