Roberts: Fraudulent organic imports threaten U.S. producers

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas opens a hearing Wednesday on the fast-growing organic and specialty crop industry and how they should be treated under the next Farm Bill.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said Wednesday that the Department of Agriculture should do more to prevent foreign countries from importing food fraudulently labeled as organic into the United States.

“A recent Washington Post article highlighted the issue of fraudulent organic imports, but my constituents in Kansas brought this issue to my attention a year ago,” Roberts said. “We pushed the Department of Agriculture to do something then, and it is clear that if it takes this long to get action, something needs to change.”

Roberts, a Republican, made the comment as the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which he chairs, opened a hearing about how the next Farm Bill should address the needs of organic and specialty crop producers.

He was referring to a May 12 story in the Washington Post that documented millions of pounds of fraudulently labeled “organic” soybeans and corn that were shipped into the United States from Eastern Europe.

Michelle Muth Person, a spokeswoman for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which runs the agency’s organics program, said the agency vigorously enforces its rules.

“AMS investigates hundreds of complaints each year; issues Notices of Warning and Cease and Desist Orders; and suspends and revokes certifications based on investigation outcomes,” she said in an email statement to the Journal-World. “AMS accredited certifiers also conduct their own investigations, and have collectively suspended or revoked more than 900 organic farms, ranches, and businesses in the past (five) years due to violations of the organic standards. To take enforcement action, AMS must have clear, compelling, and legally-defensible evidence that can be connected directly to a responsible party.”

Organic food sales in the United States have been growing sharply in recent years and now add up to roughly $47 billion a year, or more than 5 percent of the total U.S. food sales market, according to the Organic Trade Association.

But Kenneth Dallmier, president and chief operating officer of Clarkson Grain Company, Inc., an organic grain producer based in Cerro Gordo, Ill., told the committee that domestic grain producers have been slow to get into the organic market.

“In 2015, over 50 percent of the organic corn, and over 70 percent of the organic soybeans used in the United States were imported,” he said in testimony before the panel.

The federal government first began regulating organic agriculture in 1990 with passage of the Organic Food Production Act that authorized the USDA to enact definitions and standards for certifying food as organic.

Dallmier said the public has come to trust the USDA’s organic label, and he cited survey data showing 82 percent of U.S. households purchasing some organic products when they shop.

But he said the USDA could do more to help grain producers transition to organic production. And he said the federal government could do more to prevent fraudulently labeled organic products from entering the food chain.

He suggested using electronic tracking devices to track the shipment of certified organic grain instead of relying on paper documentation. And he said there should be stiffer penalties up and down the supply chain for illegal labeling.

“Shipping lines must be accountable for the validity of the cargo that they carry through maritime laws, and finally end-users of fraudulent grain should face product recall liability,” he said.