When journalist Peter Laufer discovered his packet of Trader Joe’s organic walnuts originated in Kazakhstan, he began wondering about the story behind his unexpectedly exotic snack.
Why did the supply chain need to reach across the globe to a former Soviet republic, one famous for a thriving black market and a bureaucracy that retains a sentimental preference for propaganda over candor? Where in Kazakhstan was the walnut grove, who was the farmer, and how were the trees cultivated?
So many questions, and the answers were nowhere to be found — at least, nowhere on the label.
Laufer’s search for an honest walnut led to a newly-published book, “Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling.” More significantly, it led to his conclusion that an organic label is not always a guarantee of wholesome food — transparency is the indispensable complementary element.
In an interview with Salon.com’s Lindsay Abrams, Laufer even suggests that consumers should ask food companies directly where their ingredients are from: “If they say ‘I’m sorry’ — as so many of them say — ‘but this is proprietary information,’ then that should throw up the red flag pretty high, because what have they got to hide?”
Transparency is the antidote to “the frailties of the [organic] certification process,” Laufer argues. “What I found shocking during [my] investigation was the lack of transparency and the opaque manner in which the certification companies operate. … To be considered organic, a third-party certifier certifies that the operation that’s creating the product is doing so according to the standards of the USDA and of the U.S. government. The rigor of those inspections differs case by case — that’s one problem.
“Another problem is that certification is a business. And so the potential for conflict of interest is huge, since the outfit being certified is paying for that certification in a competitive market. By definition, that puts the certifier in a position of being concerned about keeping the job.
“The third of three really big problems with the certification process is that so much food now is in the globalized food chain, so from a U.S. point of view, food is coming in certified organic from all over the world, and these certifiers, that are U.S.-based, rarely do that certification on-site. They shop it out to local certifiers. Definitions are different about what the regulations mean, and outside of the United States, unfortunately, the standards for honesty are not necessarily at the level that you and I may wish.”
Organic fraud is not simply an overseas phenomenon, however. Laufer cites an Oregon case in which a supplier labeled his conventional corn as organic: “He used fraudulent certificates, counterfeit certificates that he created from real ones, and it’s an example of how relatively easy it is for a crook to take advantage of the system. We don’t know how often it happens, in part because the inspection system is understaffed and we have something like $28 billion worth of organic food being traded annually at this point in the U.S. and about 28 employees in the National Organic Program to handle investigations of such certificates.”
Laufer discovered the truth that only transparency of information, coupled with a consumer’s actively inquisitive mind, can provide the proper level of reassurance that our food is safe, healthy and genuine. Or as a Supreme Court justice once observed: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
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