When Organic Activists Become Inspectors

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Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a three-part series about problems with the organic food industry.

Previously, I discussed how organic farmers and processors can almost do whatever they want as long as no one is looking, while society awaits across-the-board field-testing and surprise inspections. Also, I discussed how it is an order of magnitude easier to get away with organic fraud over in the People’s Republic of China, or any of a number of other corrupt sanctuaries that feed the booming American “organic” market.

Organic activists assure us that the “level of scrutiny” organic farmers, processors and for-profit certifying agencies are subjected to is “intense.” But having seen both sides of the organic-certification system as a farmer and inspector, I can tell you, with great regret, that it is “intense” only in terms of bureaucratic paperwork and nothing else. As long as the organic industry hires enough staff to stay on top of the bureaucracy, they will be well on their to turning a profit that even Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff would envy.

White-collar criminals never seem to have trouble keeping up on their paperwork. Am I mistaken in my impression that the feds are super-gullible in their trust of people’s records? Yogi Berra once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”

Intentions are nice, but in practice, proof is essential—especially when a premium price is being charged.

What exactly do organic inspectors do during “inspections”?

It is rare to find an organic inspector who desires proof of organic authenticity in the form of a simple, inexpensive lab test on a sample collected from the field. With few exceptions, my fellow inspectors all embrace paperwork and the perfunctory “look-see” around a facility.

Honest organic farmers (not the fake ones in China) hate paperwork, and they want unannounced organic field-testing to be implemented immediately. It is a difference of opinion that can be explained by the fact that most organic inspectors have never worked a day on a farm, much like urban organic activists. Put simply, they are out of touch with the people who live on the land and drive the whole organic movement.

The reason is that most organic inspectors are, at the same time, urban organic activists. They take marching orders from pro-organic organizations, such as the Environmental Working Group, who would have you believe that conventionally grown food is dirty or even poisonous. These like-minded, tax-funded, organic activist groups are less interested in scientific objectivity and more interested in conducting a food revolution.

The challenge

Miles McEvoy, the Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program at the USDA, was on the right track when he tested crop samples from 5% of applicants when he was with the Washington State Dept. of Agriculture’s Organic Food Program. His problem back then was his failure to replace paperwork with field-testing, and he basically ran out of money by running parallel inspection systems.

With field-testing coming in at a tenth the cost of paperwork, the challenge for the most powerful person in the organic industry is to use the USDA to eliminate the self-reporting and institute 100% testing of all products that claim to be organic. That way, we will be assured of quality when we see a product marked with the USDA National Organic Program’s certified-organic label.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle had their organic garden at the White House field-tested. Were they just being over-zealous, or do they agree with President Clinton, the American Consumers Union, and the majority of domestic organic farmers that organic fields need to be tested?

McEvoy has the power. He promised to do this. The time for waiting is over.

Unfortunately, if these reforms are not implemented, the organic industry will remain an elaborate scam, and McEvoy will be remembered for sullying the USDA’s good name.

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