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With organic produce being such a large part of the United States food industry, it is important that measures are taken to ensure consumers are getting what they pay for and that they can trust the purchasing process. In ancient times, organic was the only way farming was done, but in the recent past, conventional methods took over, destroying the fertility of U.S. soil and employing harmful pesticides. When organic farming came back into the forefront in the 1950s, rules and regulations came about to ensure certified, quality organic food was being placed on the shelves. Regulations however are hard to enforce on foreign countries like China, who exports supposedly organic produce to the United States. We came up with a method of testing how much consumers trust the USDA Organic seal placed on supposedly qualified organic foods, and we hypothesized that a large amount of consumers who purchase organic foods are unaware of the lack of vetting on these foods before they are allowed on grocery store shelves. Figuring out the percentage of consumers that trust this food based solely on the seal will assist in producing evidence in pursuit of policy change. In an industry that lacks ethics in order to receive financial gain, many producers will stop at short of nothing to do so, but when health of humanity is in question, things can become very dangerous.
Organic food sales in the United States reached $35.1 billion dollars in 2013, making the U.S. the largest organic market in the world. This means that 5% of food sales in the U.S. come from organic products (Mosier). Due to the large impact organic produce has on the market and on consumers, this is an industry that should be strongly regulated, “however, the organic food market is in a unique position because its supply chain is interdependent with organic certification policies that are managed by state and federal policymakers” (Mosier). These certification policies have proven to be less than satisfactory in past, causing produce that is not actually organic to slip through the cracks. Throughout this essay, scientific article on organic produce, the processes they go through to become certified, and issues dealing with the U.S. and China’s organic certification systems will be critically analyzed and a new method of researching this topic will be displayed. When it comes to something as important as food, regulations are necessary, but some industries will go to dangerous lengths to make an extra buck regardless of the health consequences, resulting in misleading labels on produce in your local grocery store.
The pioneer of the organic movement in the United States is named Jerome Rodale. “In 1942, Rodale published the Organic Farming Magazine, which provided a platform for spreading his belief in organic food and distaste of chemically induced agriculture” (Liu). Rodale analyzed ways in which modern day farming was destroying soil fertility and producing unhealthy produce. “Organic agriculture can be broadly defined as a ‘‘holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity” (Mosier). Rodale vividly “likened chemical fertilizers to whipping a horse, speeding up growth but hastening tiredness” (Liu). Rodale’s push towards organic processes in the U.S. paid off as the government began understanding the consequences of unfertile soil due to continuous conventional farming. Soon after, organic methods began to become normalized in the U.S., and consumers were willing to pay higher prices for fruits and vegetables produces without pesticides.
Without fail, farmers began fraudulently passing off conventionally grown produce as organic, due to conventional production costs being less. Organic methods are more costly because “organic producers may face a shortage of organic seed, pesticides and other inputs or may face higher prices for these inputs and because of relatively intense use of labor, specialized equipment and other substitutes for synthetic chemicals” (Veldstra). In the 1970s, local and state government knew action must be taken against this fraudulent activity so that the market was regulated. Most states created regulations, but in time they noticed that each state had different standards. This caused upset in the market which the federal government took notice of. “The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) was passed by Congress as Title XXI of the 1990 Farm Bill” (Mosier). This Act introduced national regulations on what could and could not be labeled “organic”. The goal was to assist consumers in choosing what they wanted to eat and guaranteeing them they were getting what they paid for.
The Farm Bill also brought about the National Organic Program (NOP) and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which were handled by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. “The NOP is responsible for setting the standards for organic production, handling and processing. In addition, the NOP oversees organic certification to ensure compliance with set standards. As another key element of the legislation, the NOSB is an advisory committee for setting the standards by which the NOP operates” (Mosier). Certification was now required in order to display the USDA Organic seal on products in stores. Many farmers wanted to be certified, but the process was not easy, so some farmers, even ones who were producing organic produce, chose not to become certified, and just relied on their close relationships with local consumers to drive their business. “There were multiple barriers to organic certification including the three-year transition period, the financial and time cost of certification, and paperwork” (Veldstra). Farmers had to debate on whether or not the higher revenue for organic products was worth all of the trouble of becoming certified.
Many factors affected this decision for farmers. While market forces determined organic dispersal and policy, “less direct financial support for transition, the perceived costliness of certification, and other marketing opportunities that do not require certification has led to interesting dynamics in determining what producers are choosing to certify” (Mosier). In order to become certified organic, farmers had to make sure their produce was being grown organically three years in advance of receiving certification. While unable to obtain certification until the three-year waiting period was up, some farmers were able to up their prices by marketing their products as “transitional”. Some farmers did not become certified because they did not believe the gain from being certified organic would outweigh the costs, and some just did not have access to consumers willing to pay extra for organic produce.
Since the market drives U.S. policy in relation to organic produce, “there is some financial support for organic certification; US producers are eligible to receive an organic certification cost share reimbursement of up to 75% but not to exceed $750 per year (Veldstra). This differs in Europe, where the European Common Agricultural Policy guarantees organic farmers large subsidies, which allow them to more feasibly gain their certification. Some producers in the U.S. don’t get certified because they don’t believe the certifiers are trained enough in their task. “The same producers who strongly agree the process of certification is confusing also say interaction with the certifier is a severe barrier. This suggests that some certifiers may increase confusion” (Veldstra). A solution to this issue would be training the certifiers in a way that allows them to be more helpful in relaying information to producers about how the process works, and training them to get the process done in a quick and effective way.
In research done by Michael D. Veldstra, smaller farms were more likely to organically produce crops “motivated primarily by their philosophical beliefs compared to none of those farming above 50 acres”. While philosophical beliefs run strong on some farms, others care more about financial gain, causing some of them to hide under the umbrella of the term “local”. At places like farmers markets where consumers have a direct relationship with the farmers, farmers are able to charge more for their produce by luring consumers in with the term “local”, which many consumers believe means “organic”. Moreover, this lack of consumer awareness may allow producers to ‘‘pick and choose’’ which organic practices to follow, while still marketing their products as organic” (Veldstra). This is an issue because it is deceptive marketing and the consumer is not getting what he or she paid for. Although this may seem unacceptable, in China, even greater measures are taken to deceive consumers into believing they are purchasing organic, even to the point where some measures are deadly.
In 2008 the United States organic industry became a $21.1 billion industry, and like many other products, producers were not able to keep up with the demand, so they began relying on imports to satiate hungry consumers. “As much as 40% of organic foods consumed in the United States are imported from over 100 countries” (Liu). USDA agents gained the job of travelling to these foreign countries, like China, for example, and certifying producers to grow organic foods and allow them to use the USDA Organic Seal and import to the U.S. (Liu). With the demand for organic items being so high, these agents knew they had to come home having accredited a large number of farmers.
“In 2007, USDA-accredited agents certified 27,000 organic producers and handlers worldwide, 11,000 of which were outside of the U.S.” (Liu). The goal was to hold these international producers to the same standards as U.S. organic farmers, meaning pesticides were not allowed to be used three years prior to selling the produce in stores. While these rules seemed effective, underneath all of the regulations lies the truth, that some pesticides are actually allowed by the OFPA to be used on organic produce. This means that when consumers go to the store to purchase organic produce under the pretense that no pesticides were used in the production of these products, they are being deceived by the USDA Organic label. “As a former Vice-Chair of the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Mr. William J. Friedman, explained, “Organic labels are not statements regarding the healthiness, nutritional value, or overall safety of consuming such products” (Liu).
With China being so far out of reach for regularly scheduled NOP (National Organic Program) site visits, it is easy for Chinese produce to be passed off as organic in the United States even when it is not. Surprise visits by NOP agents are crucial to retaining the honesty of farmers, but in one instance, “the Inspector General discovered that the NOP Office failed to conduct initial onsite evaluations for five foreign certifying agents for as long as seven years after the Office conditionally accredited the agents” (Liu). This left a lot of room for error and seven entire years for deception to take place within the foreign organic industry. Agents occasionally travel to China to monitor production processes and to test residue on the produce to make sure the farmers were being compliant, however these visits were sparse. This is due to budget and limited amount of agents, and is simply not enough to make sure organic imports are regulated and held to a high enough standard. “In the most egregious cases, the USDA granted foreign certifying agents conditional accreditations based only on paper applications and did not follow up to check on their compliance for up to seven years” (Liu). Dishonest growers not only negatively affect consumers, but they push compliant growers out of stores due to their low prices.
Some specific cases of deception involving organic produce in large supermarkets in the U.S. have been reported on. In one instance, Whole Foods marketed one of their organic snacks with large letters reading “California” on the front of the packaging, but in very fine print on the back it said, “imported from China” (Liu). This marketing by Whole Foods mislead consumers into thinking the product was from California, which is probably more tightly regulated than China when it comes to organic produce. “In its rebuttal to the 2008 ABC news report discussed above, Whole Foods tried to convince consumers that it was irrelevant whether their organic products came from Chinese or domestic producers because both were subject to the same regulations and supervision. However, certifying agents working in China were found to not even understand the NOP regulations” (Liu). This misunderstand comes from lack of training of certifiers by the USDA, which in turn causes confusion in producers when untrained certifiers arrive and share wrong or inadequate information. “In 2006, Wal-Mart stores in China had to pull fresh organic produce from their shelves because a surprise inspection revealed that the produce from a trusted farm based in Beijing was actually treated with pesticides” (Liu). Numerous Chinese producers claimed to be following the production rules while being deceptive and using conventional farming techniques to gain more revenue. This is harmful to consumers as they may have health issues regarding pesticides and other chemicals used by conventional producers, and this is also harmful to their wallets, as they are shelling out more money for a product they think is held to a higher standard, but is not.
When the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was introduced, there were high hopes for the regulation of organic produce in the U.S. Maybe now consumers could feel assured that the food they were purchasing and eating was free of harmful pesticides, GMOs, and chemicals. This act proposed a national list of chemicals and pesticides that were not allowed in the production of organic produce, and certifiers were sent out to organic farms to make sure regulations were being followed. “Currently, the National List allows over sixty synthetic substances to be used in organic crop production” (Liu). In addition to domestic visits to organic producers, international visits must be made as well. Throughout this section of the essay, the three ways in which internationally imported produce can be sold on the shelves of United States grocery stores will be discussed as well as the flaws with this certification process and ways in which policy on this matter should be improved in order to cease issues with non-organic produce slipping through the cracks. Consumers should not have to worry about whether or not their money is going to certifiable foods and if they are consuming safe produce.
The first way foreign producers are able to sell organic produce in the U.S. is to become certified by a USDA agent. “Currently, there are ninety-four USDA accredited agents, of which fifty-three are domestic agents and forty-one are foreign agents” (Liu). These agents are then supposed to do routine check ups on these locations to ensure they are continuing to follow USDA regulations to produce honest imports for the U.S. “In 2007, certifying agents accredited by the USDA certified 27,000 producers and handlers according to U.S. organic standards: “approximately 16,000 in the United States and 11,000 in over 100 foreign countries” (Liu). The second way foreign producers may gain access to the U.S. organic market is by employing a Recognition Agreement in accordance with SOP (State Organic Program) regulations. This allows the products to display the USDA seal on them when they are placed on the shelves. “Currently, the USDA has Recognition Agreements with Denmark, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom” (Liu). The third way, which is used by Canada, utilizes an Equivalency Agreement which basically relies on trusting Canada’s organic regulation system to be solid enough to allow their products into the U.S. without domestic testing, and vice versa.
Chenglin Liu’s research entered into the Stanford Journal of International Law titled “Is ‘USDA Organic’ a seal of deceit? The pitfalls of USDA certified organics produced in the United States, China and beyond” has provided a ton of insight used in this essay. Liu’s article “Is ‘USDA Organic’ a seal of deceit? The pitfalls of USDA certified organics produced in the United States, China and beyond” “concludes that the current regulatory framework is not only inadequate to the task of regulating domestic organics, but also incapable of ensuring the integrity of imported organics”. The OFPA of 1990 was passed in order to guide consumers and cease confusion when it came to organic products in the grocery store. The USDA Organic seal on foods was supposed to assure consumers they are consuming quality, pesticide and chemical free food. However, this is not the case domestically or internationally. USDA agents who check out the production process and test for residue on products regulate foreign countries, however these agents are unable to see many components of the production process that may be breaking rules, and many producers themselves are downright dishonest.
There are “a host of relevant issues in foreign countries such as China, including land tenure, pollution, and the regulatory environment, which are far beyond the reach of certifying agents”, making the USDA seal placed upon these items deceiving (Liu). Dishonesty in the foreign organic produce industry happens because producers want their food to look and taste the best so that consumers buy more and more. Illegal chemicals are used in order to make this happen, and producers hope this slips through the cracks, and many times, it does. “Indeed, it is well-known that Chinese food makers employ the most unthinkable means to adulterate food for economic gain” (Liu). In order to continue receiving imports from China and other foreign countries that gain the privilege of the USDA Organic seal, policy change must be made to ensure these products are what they say they are.
In order to determine the overall effect of the USDA Organic seal on produce at grocery stores, the labels and consumers must be examined. We hypothesize that overall, consumers place a large amount of trust in the USDA Organic seal and that they are unaware of a lot of policies that have proven to be ineffective surrounding the organic food they purchase. Organic labels include the following layers: 100% organic, organic, and made with organic. “A product sold as “100% organic” must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) 100% organically produced ingredients” (Liu). This type of product may have the USDA seal on the front of the packaging along with the logo of the agent that certified it as organic. A product marketed as “organic” “must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) not less than 95% organically produced raw or processed agricultural products” (Liu). This type of product is also allowed to have the seal and logo on the front of the package. “A product sold as “made with organic,” specifying which ingredients are organic, must contain (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) at least 70% organically produced ingredients” (Liu). This type of product may only have the agent’s logo; the USDA seal is not on these products.
Consumers must be surveyed in order to gain qualitative and quantitative data on how willing they are to purchase foods for a higher price because the label reads 100% organic, organic, or made with organic. In order to carry out this survey it would be sent to 500 households through email with the following questions:
By discovering the motivation behind consumers purchasing organic produce in comparison to conventionally grown produce, we can gain insight into how much the USDA Organic seal means to consumers making a purchase. By figuring out how much this seal affects the purchase, we can more feasibly understand how crucial it is for the seal to keep its promises of either 100% organic food or organic food. Gathering this information will help with policy change in relation to organic food regulations because the USDA will be able to see how much trust consumers place in the seal with expectations of pesticide free, chemical, free, and GMO free produce. Currently, according to research done by Samantha Mosier, Michael Veldstra, and Chenglin Liu in their scientific journals quoted throughout this essay, regulations enforced by the USDA are not sufficient domestically and definitely not internationally.
Through research, the lack of vetting on organic foods imported into the U.S. as well as organic foods produced right here in our backyards is relevant, and through the scientific method of surveying consumers about their trust in the USDA Organic seal, the conclusion is that policy change should be made if the organic food industry wants to retain any integrity at all. Periodic residue testing and occasional visits to foreign organic farms are not enough to ensure consumers are getting what they pay for. Many scams have come out within the organic food industry involving deception resulting in illness and death, for instance the 2008 Chinese milk scandal where melamine, a chemical with large amounts of nitrogen was found in “organic” baby formula and milk. This kind of chemical slipping under the radar goes to show the lack of authority in the organic industry. Our scientific method aims at extracting information that will affect policy change in hopes that consumers in the United States will no longer stand for this deception.
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