Organic Crops Are Tested for Pathogens, Right? Nope

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in organic production and encourages natural compost. But it does not test for un-composted feces, relying instead on record-keeping and record-checking.

At least 140 people across eight states have now fallen ill after consuming hepatitis-A-infected certified-organic frozen berries and pomegranate seeds; 61 were still in hospitals in mid-July.

For some strange reason, this outbreak is being linked in the media to improper hand-washing instead of composting, landing this on the lap of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) instead of the USDA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, has made no such determination.

With almost a quarter-million 3-lb. bags recalled, improper hand-washing is entirely implausible. Workers could never infect so much product and, in any case, no infected workers have been found. Un-composted feces (human or animal) spread across an entire field should not be eliminated as a possibility (by the media or anyone else), before less obvious theories are investigated.

Section §205.203 of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) stipulates that manure cannot “contribute to contamination of crops [or] soil” and details proper composting procedures. Failure to comply means an “excluded method” is being used which can result in a “prohibited substance”--i.e. feces--making its way into organic food. This section also prohibits the use of human waste (biosolids) for food crops. USDA NOP §205.670 and §205.671 then provide authority to the USDA to take samples and test for these most undesirable of substances.

A fecal coliform test costs only $20, but the USDA hasn’t observed its own rules since the NOP became law in 2002! So now it’s the FDA to the rescue. That’s why this story is being treated as a food problem, not an agricultural problem--hence the hand-washing theory, with no mention of manure or the USDA. And not a single reporter is asking why a local health board scrutinizes a McDonald’s restaurant more closely and scientifically than the USDA examines a multi-million-dollar organic food company whose products reach thousands more people.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal and Breitbart.com accuse President Obama of dragging his feet on providing more funding for the FDA to inspect food imports. But, as explained, it’s the USDA, not the FDA, which is supposed to watch over organic crops. If the FDA were to provide more scrutiny--which a Center for Food Safety lawsuit is asking for--the change would only serve to let the USDA off the hook and continue wasting the tax dollars it receives to run the NOP.

There’s no point in throwing good money after bad. Fiscal hawks on both sides of the aisle in Washington should avoid falling into the trap of pushing for more Big Government.

Instead, they should insist that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack be called to the White House to demand that the USDA National Organic Program finally perform its duties, rather than dumping them on the FDA--at least where oversight of organic production is concerned.

As to why Obama is dragging his feet, surely someone has explained to the President which bloated agency is supposed to prevent such outbreaks in the American organic sector, so that people aren’t hospitalized--or sent to the grave, as happened with 44 people in Germany after they ate bacteria-contaminated organic food. But it would seem that President Obama does not want anyone, least of all the FDA, to provide scientific scrutiny of imported food, especially organic food.

Mr. Obama seems perfectly content with the fake “monitoring” that’s being provided right now by the USDA. If it were given more funding, the FDA would, naturally, test imported organic food--revealing that organic food isn't always genuine, much less in compliance with the law, much less safe. That would undermine the very existence of the USDA’s NOP which, incidentally, contractsall of its inspection and oversight duties out to private and not-for-profit agencies.

Fiscal hawks will no doubt support the contracting-out of regulatory duties in Washington. But of the roughly 100 USDA-accredited organic certifying agencies around the world that offer USDA-organic certification, half charge royalties on top of their regular, up-front fees. These royalties are tantamount to the franchise fees a McDonald’s franchisee pays for use of the McDonald’s brand: 1.5 percent of gross revenue. That’s a lot of cash.

But these royalties are not paid in exchange for the brand of a certifier no one has ever heard of. Rather, they are paid to secure the use of the USDA’s good name, which is emblazoned on certified-organic products--even if they’re grown overseas in a country like Turkey, which does allow the use of human feces on food crops, and now appears to be the source of this latest outbreak.

Organic royalties generate millions of dollars for certifiers--simply for rubber-stamping large transactions, like a quarter-million 3-pound bags, for example. And these agencies are not about to stand idly by and let another department second-guess the rather lucrative decisions they make on the USDA’s behalf.

The operators of these agencies, along with the organic food industry, want to keep things just the way they are: no testing, no problem. And the President is evidently listening, regardless of the implications for the health and well-being of Americans who buy USDA-certified organic food under the pretext that it’s somehow safer and more nutritious for them.

Cheap imports of USDA certified-organic food will, in all likelihood, continue to flow freely into America from abroad, even if they come replete with traces of human or animal feces. The irony is that, even if the FDA did step up inspections at ports, this putatively “organic” food would still be USDA-certified everywhere else in the world it’s sold.

Want some more irony? A lot of the cash generated in the organic industry--especially from the big organic companies' lucrative royalty system--is funneled into tax-sheltered activist campaigns. What do they do? They promote organic food--while they attack and undermine America’s science-based conventional food system, a system which (although far from perfect) has an altogether superior track record when it comes to keeping feces out of your grocery cart, and people out of hospitals.

Americans buy over $30-billion-worth of organic food every year based on Big Organic’s claims that it’s purer, more nutritious, safer, and all-'round better than regular food, which is under constant attack from activists. The USDA would do well to step up its efforts to, at the very least, ensure organic products are as safe as regular food. 

Otherwise, what exactly is Vilsack doing with the tax dollars his department receives to regulate the organic sector?

Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA Advanced Organic Farm and Process Inspector. He’s the author of Is it Organic? and a policy analyst the Heartland InstituteFrontier Centre for Public Policy, and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow.



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