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FOOD SAFETY

Cheaper by the Dozen

The Dark Side of the Organic Boom

peanuts SOURCE: flickr.com/Robert Couse-Baker The salmonella-contaminated peanut outbreak is raising alarm over the U.S.’s fractured food system—a system “organics” and conventional mass-market foods often travel through side-by-side.

Parents have been shaken by the news that CLIF Bar—the sporty Berkeley, California company with the reputation of being friendly to both the earth and customers—had found its line of “CLIF Kid Organic” bars swept up in the Peanut Corporation of America’s salmonella-ignited recall that has left at least eight people dead. “I feel very betrayed by Clif,” wrote commenter “Luna” on the Eco Child’s Play blog. “I would think that a company that ‘cares about food’ would think twice about sourcing from a plant that supplies a bunch of high-volume, low market brands.” That’s an understandable sentiment. The pig-tailed girl cartwheeling in front of a mountain landscape on the USDA Organic-stamped ZBar label evokes vitality, goodness, sustainability—not salmonella. But today, it seems, there’s not so much of a yawning gap between “high volume, low market brands” and organic kids snacks as Luna might hope.

Many of us are Lunas when it comes to organic. That a rogue Georgia peanut plant might allow salmonella into organic snack foods from, perhaps, Chinese peanuts, probably strikes many of us as a long way from that idealistic post-Silent Spring 1960’s vision of a people-powered sustainable alternative lifestyle. (Even more so when we consider that while the source or sources of the current outbreak haven’t been nailed down, the debilitating bacteria could have come from a peanut crop that was certified organic by direction of the Chinese government and was, perhaps, grown in raw sewage—but more on that in a bit.) For better or for worse, today “organic” is part of America’s conventional food system, dependent on the same processors, distributors, and marketers as nearly everything else we eat. And so, when the American conventional food system sneezes, organics catch a cold.

Tracing the Salmonella Outbreak

The Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America, or PCA, has long been a source of ills. One peanut buyer complained to the Washington Post that PCA preyed on “distressed situations,” finding big paydays with suppliers who “had peanuts from last year that had to move.” In a November 2006 letter recently uncovered by Congress, a consultant wrote PCA CEO Stuart Parnell to explain where an outbreak of salmonella was likely coming from. “Organic Chinese peanuts were the source of the roasted, granulated peanut product,” wrote Darlene Corwart of J. Leek Associates, Inc., who didn’t respond to Science Progress’ request for comment. She went on: “[I]t seems likely that the Chinese Organic peanuts could be the source for the microbial hazards given the nature of fertilizers used on organic products.”

If your ewww sensor goes off at the mention of “the nature of fertilizers,” that’s with good reason. It’s a good bet Corwart is referring to the practice of using untreated excrement—animal and otherwise—to fertilize Chinese crops. (If I haven’t already lost you to queasiness, the Dallas Morning News has more on the practice.)

Organic: Adrift in USDA’s Backwater

But there’s a check, right? Some responsible party making sure organic stands for something? Well, it depends. Organic became a federal standard two decades ago when farmers needed something for customers to trust beyond their smiling faces; in effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is vouching for the conscientious farmer. But, explains Pennsylvania Certified Organic’s Emily Brown Rosen to Science Progress, housed within the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the National Organic Program, or NOP, has never been much liked. The USDA approach to organics, say even supporters of the current system, has long been like dragging your kid brother or sister out with your friends because mom said you didn’t have a choice. “USDA didn’t start the organic process because they wanted to,” said Rosen. “They started the organic process because the organics community got a bill passed on the floor of Congress,” the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, or OFPA. Rosen describes NOP’s status at USDA as “very sort of backwater.”

Keep talking to Rosen, and the conflict between how parents like “Luna,” growers, and the USDA all see organics jumps out. “Most people involved in organic think it is a high-quality product,” she argues, “But USDA makes a big deal out of saying that organic isn’t a food safety claim or a quality rule—it’s a marketing standard.” NOP refers to itself as “a marketing program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.” That’s “marketing” twice, for those of you counting at home.

The Dawn of Cheap Organics

Yet while making its home in bureaucratic Siberia, the “organic” label has also morphed from community standard to a U.S.-backed magical stamp of approval, as good as currency. The organic market is, after all, booming. Sales grew from $1 billion in 199o to $20 billion in 2008, and are pegged to grow 18 percent each year for the near future. CLIF Bar—whose idea of branching out means a LUNA bar line for women—found itself caught up in the PCA recall. The other organics on the list, though, are products of far bigger businesses. Health Valley Organic Peanut Crunch Chewy Granola Bars are a product of the billion-dollar food giant Hain Celestial Group. Organic Cascade Trail Mix belongs to the discount grocery store chain WinCo. Cascadian Farms, makers of the recalled Sweet & Salty Mixed Nuts Chewy Granola Bars, is a General Mills brand. Today’s iconic organic brand is less Farmer Jane’s farm-grown apples than Anheuser-Busch Organic Wild Hops Lager.

Jim Riddle served on USDA’s National Organic Safety Board for five years. “A shopper still needs to be smart in their food choices,” Riddle advises. “You can waste your money on highly advertised and packaged and marketed products organic products just like you can waste your money on highly advertised and packaged and marketed conventional products.”

Into the Peanut Breach, China

With the growing hunger for mass-market organics, the U.S. needs China’s organic peanuts, and cheap. Take it from the Chilean American Chamber of Commerce. “With increasing popularity of organic products due to changing preferences, lower prices and the entrance Wal-Mart into the market,” AmCham Chile has told its farmers and producers, “dependence on imports will only get larger until the US organic agriculture system changes.” All this creates the (unrealistic?) expectation that organic should be easy on the wallet. “It trickles down to the budget-minded shopper,” argues Organic Consumers Association chief scientist Craig Minowa. “You go into the store and see an organic peanut butter that’s three dollars more than another organic peanut butter sitting next to it on the shelf. They go cheaper. But what they won’t do is flip over the jar and see that the peanuts were grown in China.”

PCA’s Blakely, Georgia plant was smack in the middle peanut country. (Jimmy Carter’s Plains farm is about 75 miles northeast.) But, plagued by weeds, few local peanut farmers are certified organic. Yet, admits Riddle, when it comes to outsourcing organics to China, “There are problems.” While Whole Foods may say that “organic standards in China are no different than they are in Brazil, Turkey, Thailand or anywhere else,” Riddle concedes that “not all organic is the same.”

Translating “Organic” Abroad

Still, there’s an expectation that USDA organic, even on Chinese peanuts, means something. Worth keeping in mind is the fact that USDA doesn’t actually certify any carrot or potato or apple as organic. It certifies certifiers. NOP’s tiny staff of 15 relies on third party accreditation agencies—Quality Assurance International, for example, or the Organic Crop Improvement Association, which, according to an archive of the PCA website, was the certifying authority on its troubled Georgia plant. “The certifiers realize that the more products they certify, the better it is for them,” explains Minowa. “So you might have an inspector coming in who might have a boss who says ‘you don’t need to be so anal about it.’” (The organic certifier in PCA’s Plainview, Texas, plant has since been fired by the Texas Department of Agriculture.)

Or you might have a foreign government with an unsettling food record. Consider this: with imported foods, USDA relies on certifiers working in-country, but Chinese regulations prevent foreign inspectors on Chinese farms. So, a third-party certifier like OCIA, for example, operates a local office at 8 Jiangwangmiao Street in Nanjing, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. But that office is actually run by China’s Organic Food Development Center. Which is, in fact, an arm of SEPA, or, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration. As in, your peanut butter’s organic because the Chinese government says it is.

OCIA CEO Jeff Sees defends the arrangement in an email: “Certification Decisions are not made by OFDC. All inspection reports are given to our staff in China who translate the reports and send them to our reviewers in Lincoln [Nebraska] for the determination of Organic status.”

The Fix? An Empowered USDA Organics Program, Demanding Eaters

Thanks to the 2008 Farm Bill, funding of the “backwater” National Organic Program got a small bump for fiscal year 2008, and President Obama’s FY2010 budget overview released last week pledged a boost in USDA organic funding dedicated, in part, to “maintain[ing] label credibility.” Still, the office overseeing a $20 billion industry is running today on, at most, just $2.6 million a year. A more empowered organics program at USDA could poke its fingers into more places, including in problem spots abroad like China. As the organic boom continues, concerned eaters like Luna and the rest of us have to demand that the “USDA organic” label means something real, powerful, and bankable. After all, with the American food system we have today, “organic” eaters or not, we’re all eating from the same pie.

Nancy Scola is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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