Its investigative unit, OrganicEye, will address what Beyond Pesticides considers the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “systemic failure” to safeguard players in the US organic industry.
The agency provides a resource for members of the US organic farming community and their customers, said Mark Kastel, director and co-founder with OrganicEye, who has also acted as an independent fraud investigator within the organic production system and marketplace.
Mark Kastel was one of the founders of The Cornucopia Institute, a venerable organic farm-policy research group, brings over 30 years of diverse involvement in the industry. His background includes work as a certified agricultural producer, business development consultant, and registered lobbyist. Beyond Pesticides said that background makes him one of the most experienced independent fraud investigators in the US organics industry.
“We’re not private eyes, we’re public eyes – we’re operating as investigators, as a public interest group. So whenever fraud occurs, or the USDA misinterprets the spirit and letter of the law to favor industrial agriculture, it places ethical industry participants at a competitive disadvantage, and we won’t stand for that.”
"We hope to inform organic stakeholders – the people who own this industry – what’s really going on and hold the commercial players, the government and the certifiers who aren’t doing their job accountable,” he told us.
However, said Kastel, the “vast preponderance” of producers working in the organic systems do comply with both the letter and spirit of the law.
The agency will be pushing regulators to act and enforce the laws that are currently in place; it will also press the US Congress on better oversight, he said.
“We’re going to name names, so whenever possible we’re going to create market place pressure,” Kastel said of the work the agency will do. “I’m a big believer in throwing all the spaghetti at the wall – I don’t know what’s going to stick – and so I’m not going to put all our resources into one tactic. But knowledge is power, and we’re going to make sure that the owners of the organic movement know what’s going on and can exert that power appropriately.”
Tracking organic feed, food fraud
The investigative unit is prepared to probe concerns about fraudulently labeled organic products produced either domestically or internationally, said Kastel. It also will cover the range of organic products as needed including feed grains, livestock and food products.
“It’s too easy to cheat because all the corn looks yellow and all the milk looks white,” he said. “There isn’t anything visual except the paperwork.”
However, traceback efforts and additional production auditing could address some of the areas where fraud is a concern, he said.
“We’re shortly going to be coming up with a formal request that the traceback occurs and that every bulk shipment coming into the united states be tested,” he added.
The project launched with several investigations on its “radar screen,” Kastel said.
It has already made a request to the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate an incident whereby, allegedly, a large shipment of imported grain from Turkey was identified as potentially fraudulent but federal and state agencies reportedly failed to quarantine the shipment and test the cargo prior to unloading. OrganicEye claims that, instead of collaborating with agricultural regulators in North Carolina, federal customs and border protection agents, chose to rely exclusively on paperwork from the certifier.
The tip off on the allegedly fraudulent shipment came from an authoritative industry source and was relayed by the US Organic Farmers Association, said OrganicEye in a release.
'Not in the rumor business'
The group will take tip offs from the public; however, it does not intend to be “in the rumor business.”
“When someone comes forward, it’s not that I disbelieve them but, I need, before I go to the USDA or other federal law enforcement authorities, to triangulate stories; I need multiple witnesses, I need documentary evidence, I need photographs,” he said.
The agency will communicate about incidents, when appropriate, he said. “Our job is to take some of the worst examples and bring them to the attention of the public, to force the USDA to do more rigorous work."
Historically, there was a lack of transparency regarding regulatory actions taken by the USDA, said Kastel.
However, the USDA now lists the entities that have been penalized, he said.
“But the mystery [remains as to what exactly] they have done wrong – there’s no articulation of what the violations were. So we lose the deterrent factor of embarrassing these people in public."