Two Huge Cases Of Organic Food Fraud Have Been Exposed This Month—Here's What You Should Know

First dairy, now corn and soybeans—how far does the deception go?

May 15, 2017
spilled milk
marykan/ Getty

When you shell out the extra bucks for certified organic fruits, veggies, dairy, and packaged foods, you should feel confident that you’re getting a cleaner, higher quality product, and that your money benefits farmers engaged in ethical, sustainable practices. 

But according to two recent exposés by the Washington Post, that’s not always the case. Get ready to be pissed off.

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(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need.)

The Largest U.S. Producer Of Organic Milk Isn't Following The Rules

cow eating grass
Tony C French/ Getty

Earlier this month, the Washington Post broke a story claiming that Aurora Organic Dairy, a large, U.S.-based organic milk producer that supplies store-brand organic milk to retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Target, has been operating illegally by failing to graze their cattle according to USDA organic standards.  

In order for dairy to be certified organic, cows are supposed to graze daily throughout the growing season. But when reporters visited Aurora’s enormous High Plains dairy complex in Colorado (home to 15,000 cows) on eight separate occasions, “signs of grazing were sparse, at best.” Reporters cited seeing only a few hundred cows on pasture, and a satellite photo taken in mid-July—peak grazing time—backed up their claim.

Related: This New Study Shows That Eating Organic Food Can Actually Prevent Weight Gain

Of course, a spokesperson for Aurora denied any wrongdoing. But the article goes on to further dismantle their defense, providing evidence that the nutritional profile of Aurora’s milk suggests that their cows were eating very little grass. Testing by Virginia Tech scientists showed that on key indicators of grass-feeding—levels of two healthy fats, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and alpha-linolenic acid (a type of omega-3)—Aurora’s milk more closely resembled conventional milk than organic. 

One big problem, according to the article, is inadequate inspections—for one, the last annual inspection for Aurora’s High Plains dairy was in November, well after grazing season, meaning inspectors would have no idea if they were following grazing rules. Plus, farmers hire their own certifiers from lists of private companies and organizations licensed by the USDA, and inspections are often set up days or weeks in advance—rarely are they unannounced. 

Clearly, this is a blow to small farms that are following USDA organic guidelines and rely on the label to boost sales. 

Read the full story here: Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic 

Imported 'Organics'—Especially Corn And Soy—Carry Added Risk Of Fraud

corn and soybeans
studio2013/ Getty

Just days ago, the Washington Post published another organic exposé on imported corn and soybeans. According to the article, reporters examined records for a shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans from Ukraine to Turkey to California. At the beginning of their journey, these were ordinary, pesticide-treated soybeans; but by the time they reached California, they had been labeled “organic”—and their value increased by about $4 million. 

Examination of two more shipments of corn and soybeans—also from Eastern Europe—by reporters revealed similar findings. Even worse, the corn and soybeans were largely destined to become animal feed in the U.S., allowing them to enter the supply chain via a variety of foods, including like organic eggs, organic milk, organic beef, and organic chicken.

Related: Your Guide To Growing Organic, Non-GMO Soybeans At Home

Clearly, the USDA has a big problem verifying what’s actually organic regardless of where it comes from, but according to the article, these problems are amplified with imported products that involve middlemen, some of whom are looking to make a profit by purposely mislabeling foods “organic.” 

The article goes on to state that Agriculture Department officials claim to be investigating fraudulent grain shipments. How far those investigations will go remains unclear, but since this article was published, the department is facing increased pressure from groups like The Organic Trade Association, which is calling for a thorough and immediate investigation of any reports of fraudulent imported organic livestock feed alleged in the Washington Post’s story and otherwise reported.

Read the full story here: The labels said ‘organic.’ But these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren’t.

How Do You Avoid The Organic Imposters?

Unfortunately, we don’t have all the answers at this point. But there are a few tips for reducing your exposure to mislabeled foods. 

As far as dairy goes, you may be better off buying your organic milk from name brand producers (as opposed to buying the store brand), such as Organic Valley, that are more scrupulous with their sourcing and vet each individual farmer supplying them with milk. Organic producers that source their milk from a variety of different farms—and not one massive farm—are also better able to ensure that cows have plenty of grass to feed on during grazing season. Even better, if you have a local organic dairy in your area where you can buy your organic (and ideally grass-fed) milk and talk directly to the farmer about their practices, do that. (Here's why why grass-fed dairy is better for you, and how to avoid the fake stuff.)

With the soy and corn, it’s a bit trickier. Ditching most packaged snack foods—many of which contain corn- and soy-derived ingredients—and focusing on whole foods is a great place to start. And if you do buy organic packaged foods, see if you can find products where most of the ingredients were grown in the U.S. Of course, not all products will make this clear. (Here are 6 processed foods you should always buy organic.)

Opting, when possible, for grass-fed meats and pasture-raised chicken, eggs, and pork from a local farmers' market may also minimize your exposure to foods sourced from animals that were fed mislabeled ‘organic’ grain.  

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