WASHINGTON — The far-reaching difficulties that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has in determining whether imported organic food meets standards or is fraudulent means that it’s hard to know what products can be trusted, a grain industry executive told a Senate committee Thursday, as lawmakers prepare the next farm bill.
The testimony comes after news that millions of pounds of shipments of questionable organic”products have reached U.S. ports.
Given the current challenges of enforcement, “it is unreasonable to accept that grain being imported into the U.S. as organic has been adequately validated,” Kenneth Dallmier, president of Clarkson Grain, said in his testimony.
The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee is collecting information as lawmakers prepare the next major agriculture legislation, and it appears that one key lawmaker is ready to shake up the way the USDA regulates what can be sold as organic.
“It seems that uncertainty and dysfunction have overtaken the National Organic Standards Board and the regulations associated with the National Organic Program,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks. “These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organic from utilizing advancements in technology and operating their business in an efficient and effective manner. Simply put, this hurts our producers and economies in rural America.”
It was not clear what new technology he was referring to, however, though whether to classify “hydroponics” as organic has become a contentious question among organic farmers.
Roberts also expressed frustration with fraudulent organic imports.
After hearing a year ago from constituents concerned about import fraud, Roberts said, he pushed for USDA action. It appears he didn’t get what he was looking for.
“It is clear that if it takes this long to get action, something needed to change,” the senator said.
In recent years, an influx of corn and soybeans labeled organic from overseas has cut profits for U.S. organic farmers and raised suspicions that some of the shipments are organic in name only.
Though the United States is a major grain exporter, when it comes to organics, it is as much an importer. Last year, more than 50 percent of organic corn and more than 70 percent of organic soybeans in the country were imports. That represents about a million acres of crops, Dallmier estimated.
With prices down about 25 percent, many U.S. organic grain farmers have complained that some exporting countries are shipping more than they can actually grow.
“The numbers weren’t adding up,” Dallmier said in an interview.
Then, last month, The Washington Post reported on three major shipments of corn and soybeans that were sold as organic despite evidence to the contrary. The three shipments, each involving millions of pounds of corn or soybeans labeled organic, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities.
Since then, the USDA has decertified two of the companies involved in the shipments. Three Democratic senators — Dianne Feinstein of California, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — have asked for the USDA’s inspector general to increase enforcement of organic import standards. And the Organic Trade Association, a major industry group, has set up a task force to propose remedies.
Among the proposals for detecting fraudulent organic imports that industry officials have drafted: adding USDA staff at overseas ports deemed to be high-risk, using electronic tracking devices that would follow a product from farm to customer, and raising the penalties for companies caught cheating.