Reports of falsely labeled organic feed drive industry concerns

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock

Related tags Organic food Organic certification

Investigations, staffing changes and increased due diligence were among the recommendations offered by US organic organizations after reports of mislabeled imported organic feed grains.

An investigation, first reported in the Washington Post​, detailed how some of the feed grains imported to the US are labeled as organic but may not qualify for that identification.

Several organic organizations including the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and the Cornucopia Institute have since weighed in on the matter.

Concerns on falsely labeled organic feed products are not new, said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst and cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute. The problem may be larger than what was detailed in the investigation.

“I can’t imagine that it’s limited to the [set] of cases that the Post profiled,”​ he told FeedNavigator. “We’ve seen an exponential rise in the level of imports in the past decade.”​  

Fraud concerns

The concern about potential fraud with imported feed ingredients started when US farmers began to have increasing problems competing with imported grains, said Kastel. Even with the increase in organic production, some domestic producers have had trouble selling organic feed grains.

“We had allegations that some countries were dumping products, and one way in organics is to cheat,” ​he said.

It takes several years for farms to move from conventional to organic production and yet the expansion of feed ingredients has been rapid from some countries linked to concerns of counterfeit products in other areas, he said. “I don’t know why we’re inherently considering them trustworthy trading partners,” ​he added.

“USDA lacks any kind of special scrutiny – [regulators] haven’t treated imported commodities any differently than something produced in the US and certified by a US certifier with long ties to the industry,”​ he claimed. “The USDA has really concentrated on the paperwork being to specification.”​  

The OTA has called​ for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Organic Program to investigate any reports of fraudulent imported organic livestock feed – either based on the article or reported through other channels.

It is federal law that products carrying the organic label and sold in the US be certified to the USDA organic certification standard, said the OTA. Examinations of foreign suppliers need to be “rigorous and robust.”

The association also asked traders to report fraud concerns and for anyone involved in organic trade to verify imported organic livestock feed until those investigations are completed.

The organic label needs to assure consumers that the product was produced in accordance with organic rules, the association said.

Suggestions for looking forward  

The credibility of the organic label is an important part of the industry, said Kastel. “If the consumers lose confidence – the days of them being willing to pay a premium for food produced to a different standard are going to evaporate,”​ he added.

“Consumers who have made this choice are interested in making sure they’re not defrauded, which makes this industry a little different,”​ he said. “Most industries don’t welcome oversight, but this one was built on oversight.”

To protect the label it is important to have ways to determine if fraud has happened, he said. In the short term, it also may mean that grain buyers and livestock producers need to be more careful with their due diligence when using organic grains.

“Their reputations, and brands and customers are all at stake,”​ he said.

Another step producers or grain users could take would be to source feed ingredients domestically, said Kastel. And, the organization is planning to ask for regulatory changes that add scrutiny to large shipments of imported organic grains.

“We aren’t ready to abandon organics,” ​he said. “There are a number of industry reports and score cards to differentiate between the brands that play fast and loose with the ideals of organics.”

Additionally, in a letter​ to Sonny Perdue, US secretary of agriculture, the Institute asked to replace the current management of the National Organic Program.

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