An assortment of organic produce for sale

When journalist Peter Laufer opened a bag of rancid walnuts from Kazakhstan labeled “organic,” he decided to investigate how “organic” they really were. The longtime journalist and author discovered that some companies couldn’t verify that their sources were organic, and found other issues with fraudulent labeling in this $28 billion industry. How can you verify how “organic” your food is?

Guests:
Peter Laufer, journalist and author of "Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Discover the Truth behind Food Labeling"
Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit advocacy group that aims to challenge harmful food production technologies and promote sustainable alternatives

  • ldemelis

    It’s not just Trader Joes. Whole Foods has a lot of products labeled as “organic” from Peru and other South American countries, usually at substantial price premiums.

  • The main reason I buy organic is for the health of the farm workers, and the health of our precious soil, if its better for me then great.

    • Wilko Schutzendorf

      That would be a great reason to buy organic, if it was true.

      • BeaM

        How can you say reducing pesticide use isn’t better for the soil, air, water and human health?

        • The subtlety here is that many “organic” farming practices eschew newer _synthetic_ pesticides which are formulated for specific targets with less material and less deleterious effects on soil microbiology. Conventional farmers know about this. They don’t want to destroy soil microbes. The organic practices, however, which DO use pesticides, tend to favour older, copper & arsenic metal-based pesticides which have been recognized as more dangerous, less effective, requiring more, and permanent to the soil once applied. Pesticide use is NOT reduced with organic farming. Due to agro regulations, most localities REQUIRE farmers, organic or not, to use pesticides. So called organic certified pesticides, are less effective frequently requiring MORE pesticides to accomplish the same level of protection with formulations long since abandoned by conventional farming -> formulations abandoned by conventional farming because they found them harmful to the multi-generational health of their land.

          • BeaM

            Please differentiate between FACTORY FARMS and small scale organic growers.
            Factory Farms – Big Ag – are the ones who forced the implementation of Federal Organic Standards that would allow the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They also pushed through regulations that would allow “composted” toxic sewer sludge to be used as “organic” fertilizer.
            That doesn’t mean all organic farmers use it.

            You have to know your farmers, get involved in community supported agriculture (CSAs) in which you get local produce from growers you can visit and ask about their practices.

            The “organic” label has been bastardized by Big Agriculture. There’s just no way that even *every* truly organic farm in the US – the ones that abide by the spirit of true organic/bio-dynamic farming and rotate crops, feed the soil, plant cover crops, avoid chemicals and let fields lay fallow – could ever supply the amount of food LABELED “organic” to all the supermarkets and big box grocers in this country.

            So, you’re right about growers calling food “organic” that isn’t. But we’re talking about two different “classes” of growers. It’s why I don’t buy processed food labeled “organic” or any “organic” food from factory farms.
            But I’ve never heard of any community that REQUIRES organic growers to use chemical pesticides. Please, if you have information about that – a link, an article title, anything – please post it here. Thanks!

      • kdutcher2004@gmail.com

        You have no right to say it isn’t true, unless you know that person very well. Its just an opinion. Don’t take it personally. We all have our own opinions and beliefs. Opinions are….well, you know…everybody has one, and beliefs are just opinions one refuses to reconsider. ..its all smoke and mirrors.

        • kdutcher2004@gmail.com

          I don’t eat chicken for one reason only. Because I cannot support the chicken factories and people they employ. I love chicken, but I have a conscience. I choose to honor my conscience over my tastebuds! Thats all. Simple as that.

  • Catherine

    What about the differences in the “free range” “cage free” “grass fed” etc labels, and how these can be misleading…. and how now we now need to be looking for labels like “pasture raised” and “grass finished” to get what the former labels used to mean.

    • Chris J

      There is a great new book out called Local The Future of Farming more of which can be found at the lexiconofsustainability.com.

  • Tom

    The tone of this conversation is taking on a strange dynamic: Laufer and Krasny sounding like old buddies, chumming it up, entertaining each other’s digressions, softball questions by Krasny that allow Laufer to revisit one or another anecdote from the book he’s promoting; meanwhile, Spector on the outside, the only one being asked any challenging questions…

    • winjas

      Absolutely agree! This is a very serious subject for many of us. Especially those that are ill and trying to eat healthier. Please take this subject more seriously.

  • Eric Dekker

    I appreciate Peter Laufer’s investigative journalism, but I feel that the takeaway might be that you can’t trust organic labeling instead of the need for stricter organic standards, which are constantly under threat of being watered down by big agriculture.

    • Lauel

      Peter Laufer’s investigating on Organic Labeling was not very thorough. I know from sources close to him that his investigation for this book was more a reason to travel the world than to investigate Organics in depth. It is a shame that he attacks the Organic Industry without good research to back it up

  • Joshua Davidson

    Organic labelling in the US does not mean chemical or pesticide free. There are a number of “organic” sprays approved for organic use that are known to be carcinogenic.

    To top that, because of the synthetic origin, the are less effective and therefor require much more to be applied than conventional sprays.

  • Robert Thomas

    For several decades, foodstuffs containing ingredients from dozens of varietals created by means of the random disruption, random re-expression and random inhibition of genes through the exposure of a progenitor organism’s seeds to ionizing gamma photons (gamma radiation) from cobalt 60 or cesium 137 have been part of diets around the world. These organisms created through exposure to nuclear radiation are perfectly safe and are routinely “certified” as “organic”. A list of them includes:

    Golden Promise Barley in the UK (3 million hectares planted as far back as 1972);
    Rio Red grapefruit all over Texas (many thousands of hectares);
    CM88 & CM98 chickpeas in Pakistan;
    Gold Nijisseiki pears in Japan;
    Creso durham wheat in Italy ($2B of crop yield);
    Amaroo rice, accounting for two thirds of the Australian crop;
    Zhefu rice in China;
    PNR-102 & PNR-381 rice in China;
    TNDB100 and THDB rice in Vietnam (220,000 hectares);
    Comago 8 rice – 30% of the crop grown in Costa Rica
    etc.

    There is no evidence that human consumption of any of these artificially randomly genetically modified organisms or foods containing them has ever resulted in harm to any consumer.

    After experimental cultivation of these irradiate seeds, the resulting varietals were selected for any number of useful traits (and many, many others were rejected) but the effects of other novel genetic expression they present has never been comprehensively studied.

    NO LABELING has ever been required.

    The biggest reason for this is that mutagenic organisms created through ionizing nuclear radiation were predominately created in the laboratories of European and Asian corporations, rather than in those of U.S. corporations. This has inoculated them from attacks by craven, intellectually dishonest European and Asian interests who intend to unfairly protect their agriculture through the exploitation of the gullibility of the poorly educated and ignorant press and the fear and distrust they are able to engender in the public.

  • Livegreen

    I agree with Peter’s concerns. At the same time he’s dismissing Rebecca and caller John’s points that part of the problem is USDA’s underfunding for all food control & that non-organic is even worse.

    I believe in constructive criticism. But the context is not in a vacuum & needs to be compared to non-organic that’s even worse. Without it Peter seems to be arguing that perfect is the enemy of progress and of good…

  • Lauel

    I think Mr. Laufer is misinformed. I have been out in the field as a farmer and as
    an inspector and I have always been impressed with the way certifying agencies follow
    up with improper actions on farms and processing plants and how follow up is
    done with fraud cases. I don’t think Mr. Laufer is informed enough on organic certification
    process to hold much clout here. How many inspections has he joined an
    inspector on to get his information? What did he think about the inspections he went on?

    • BeaM

      I believe his concern began with the flood of food labeled “organic” coming from outside the US. When it says “product of China” or “product of Mexico” I generally avoid it because I doubt those governments give a hoot about oversight, and I don’t fully trust certification organizations that won’t allow anyone to oversee what they’re doing.
      Bad enough our own FDA is so pitifully underfunded and understaffed.
      We’re moving back in time to the days when Upton Sinclair had to write “The Jungle” to bring to light the horrific meat processing and human rights abuses of the Chicago industry – too little oversight, too much “quality control” left to the foxes in the henhouses.

  • Randy Cook

    Having been a devotee of Farmer’s markets for 25 years, many farmers contend that the USDA Organic label permits pesticides and generally allows for less than organic growing conditions. On top of this, Poisonous Spring, released this past year by a former EPA staffer reveals the widespread use of pesticides that would be best banned due to their neurological and carcinogenic effects in lab tests, yet many of these same pesticides are permitted under organic rules.

    Many farmers who are not organically certified are biodynamic or sustainable growers, but cannot get the organic certification because of slight nuances in the definitions. Ms Spector alludes to GMO’s, which can be deemed organic by USDA yet still contain Roundup-ready molecules in its make-up, and may be more harmful than the public is led to believe, as is discussed at length in Poisonous Spring.

    Organic is not necessarily healthy or healthier, rather just another means of marketing green without actually being environmentally or humanly safe.

    • Lauel

      AS an organic farmer who chooses to be certified to promote an industry I believe in and want o protect, I find it disheartening that other organic farmers discredit certification. GMO’s are not allowed according to the NOP guidlines.

    • Wilko Schutzendorf

      Scientific consensus currently is:

      – Evolution is true.

      – Global warming is real and manmade.

      – Smoking is seriously bad for your health.

      – Vaccines do not cause autism.

      – GMOs are safe to eat.

      You do not get to pick and choose what science is true based
      on your preconceived ideas or political inclinations. Either you believe scientists or you
      don’t. If you don’t, you might as well
      smoke a pack a day and take your kids to the creationism museum: http://creationmuseum.org/

  • victoria s.

    Question: Since most people cannot afford to buy ALL organic foods, which foods should we try to buy and eat organically?

    • winjas

      Check out the Environmental Working Groups Top 50 list online. ewg.org

  • Brendan

    What about the role of Integrated Pest Management (IPM)? While “organic” refers the absence of (some) chemical inputs, IPM is the science of sustainable & ecologically-balanced pest-control. IPM holds the potential of substantially reducing chemical input costs, while also reducing risk to farm workers. Why is IPM not mainstream?

    • BeaM

      From my days in Pest Management, I recall IPM was focused mainly on using methods that didn’t require chemicals at all – barriers, companion planting, trapping, physical removal of pests, for example. All those methods are labor intensive – part of what makes growing organic food more expensive.

  • Robert Thomas

    “Organic” labeling can reliably be interpreted to indicate “contains carbon chains”, as one learned while attending Chemistry 2A.

    One can also assume that foodstuffs labeled this way will contain a variety of deadly toxins – those, for instance, that potatoes, tomatoes and other nightshade plants have, over millions of years, evolved to deter creatures who want to eat them (including Western people, who have been exposed to them for a mere couple of hundred years). They will also contain a profusion of toxic agents from “bi-harvest” organisms such as the widely distributed delphiniums and indeed, any of the even larger family Ranunculaceae (buttercups) of which they are a part.

    The sheer enormity, in fact, of the list of vicious, deadly molecules produced by competitive evolution that confront us daily is mind-boggling.

    Better, to eat 100% artificial. Tang, anyone?

  • AdamWho

    Why did you let they guy get away with promoting views in opposition to the science? Is he that good of a buddy that you let him lie to your audience?

    1. Pesticides are used on organic crops. You can read the USDA Organic guidelines yourself

    2. Many studies have shown that there is no difference in health or safety between Organic and traditional crops. The guest saying “I just know organic is better” is no different from a creationist, anti-vaxer, climate change denier, or 9-11 truther “just knowing they are right”.

    • Wilko Schutzendorf

      Organic is better because it sound better. Marketing 101.

    • BeaM

      Pesticides are ALLOWED to be used on organic crops because BIG AG LOBBIED to formulate the “organic” standards to their own desires.
      TRULY organic farmers don’t use them. You have to seek them out and support them.
      ORGANIC traditionally meant using many practices, like crop rotation, no mono-culture, and nourishing the soil with cover crops that BIG AG doesn’t use. When you buy “organic” lettuce from the supermarket that comes in a plastic bag, it generally comes from a field filled with hundreds of acres of a single crop for the convenience of the factory farmer.
      ORGANICALLY GROWN food has almost NO pesticide residue. That alone makes it better for us than conventional crops.
      And if you care at all about the farm workers, Organic is better for their health too.
      Certain nutrients like iron have been found to be higher in some organic crops too.
      BUT you’re right about one thing — as long as the lobbyists of corporations hold sway, we can’t trust the organic label without doing our own research – just what Laufer was saying.

  • Gay Timmons

    I tuned in late but this discussion seemed to fail to mention:
    1) The State of Calif. requires:
    a – registration if you use the word organic on any label of food or cosmetic,
    b – a percentage of annually required inspections by county, report available to the public,
    c – and additional inspection by Dept. Of Public Health inspectors when they are doing general inspections on food producers.
    So there are at least 3 other layers.

    AS to GMOs – the science on the health effects on humans leaves a lot to be desired but what is very clear is that there are a very limited number of genomes used for each commercial crop and that means we have created a food system that depends on seeds that are neither adapted to the environment in which they are grown nor are they adaptable to changing conditions. So smart – set up a situation just like the Irish potato famine and wait…really? History folks.

    Finally – the original reason that people started to work on these sorts of food production systems was to replenish the health and fertility of the soil – back in the 1920s. Fo crying out loud – Cleveland lost their water supply for 4 days due to a toxic bloom in Lake Erie that has been clearly linked to synthetic fertilizer run off – connect those dots. And while you are at it, think about the recent UN Climate Change report which directly links 30% of carbon emissions directly to synthetic fertilizer.

    How we grow our food is directly linked to measurable climate impacts. Mr. Laufer may be a journalist but he appears to have worked in a rather narrow range in terms of researching why organic production is important and how it impacts the world.

    • Wilko Schutzendorf

      “the science on the health effects on humans leaves a lot to be desired”
      The science is crystal clear. Consensus is that GMOs are safe to eat. Maybe what leaves a lot to be desired is that the results of 100s of studies don’t back up your preconceived views and assumptions.
      You have a right to think GMOs are unsafe when they are not, but keep that in mind when you make fun of creationists and global warming deniers.

      • Gay Timmons

        Ahhh – and which pre-conceived notion is it that you are referring to? Re-read what I wrote – I did not say anything about the safety of GMOs. I agree with you, there is no science to back statements about human safety. What I said is that narrowing the gene pool for such enormous mono-crops puts the entire crop at risk. Again – read about the Irish Potato famine. This is about food security, not safety.

        • Wilko Schutzendorf

          You are right. I jumped to a conclusion without reading the full paragraph.

          • Gay Timmons

            Thank you. Interesting how reactive everyone is about this subject.

  • Wilko Schutzendorf

    Thank you Michael for pointing out that scientific consensus does not back the health benefits claimed by organic food advocates.
    In the future, when dealing with organic farming practices, please point out the following.
    Organic farmers DO use pesticides and herbicides. Your guest were either misinformed or dishonest claiming organic farmers don’t use pesticides.
    They could have said that organic farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides, that the use natural pesticides only. That would be fine, but the fact that something is natural doesn’t mean that it is safe or good for the environment. Coal is all natural but it is clearly not good for the environment.

    • BeaM

      FACTORY FARMING “organic” producers are not the same as TRADITIONAL organic farmers.
      The use of pesticides in organic farming (along with the use of composted sewer sludge) are things that BIG AGRICULTURE (corporations) pushed through when organic standards were being written.
      REAL ORGANIC farmers do not use chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or genetically modified organisms.

      Coal isn’t an herbicide or pesticide so let’s ignore it, OK?
      If I spray soapy water on my roses to get rid of the aphids, that’s a “pesticide” but it washes off completely, doesn’t harm me when I spray it, and doesn’t leave residue on the petals or rose hips when I want to use them.
      That’s the difference between what I think you mean by “synthetic” and “natural.”
      Natural IS safer for the environment (water, soil, air) AND the human beings using it.

      • Wilko Schutzendorf

        A wolf and a lion are
        “all natural”, while a kitty cat and Chihuahua are genetically
        modified (by selective breeding). Natural selection would have never evolved a
        wolf into a Chihuahua, but if you feel safer among natural wolves and lions, go
        ahead. Natural is no warrantee of
        safety.

        Go eat random
        mushrooms and poison ivy on you next hike, and you will understand what I’m talking
        about.

        Coal was just an
        example to point out the naturalistic fallacy of the organic argument.
        But as it turns out, coal is used in agriculture:

        http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-in-soil/

        http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie50398a004

        It is probably not
        a good idea, but it is natural.

        • BeaM

          Your obvious lack of understanding of the difference between GENETIC modification (using GENES spliced into the DNA of organisms to alter their genetic makeup) and SELECTIVE BREEDING which doesn’t involved introduction of genes from one biological family into the genes of another (like fish genes injected into tomato DNA) renders ALL your comments beneath notice.

          • Wilko Schutzendorf

            It is not the same, but both are man made unnatural processes. Why panic about one and not the other?
            Fish DNA in Tomatoes? So what? Fish and tomatoes already share 50% of their DNA. How about if I eat fish with my tomatoes. I understand fish has 100% fish DNA.
            Oh, one more thing, there is NOT a single GMO tomato on the market.

  • timkay

    I don’t understand why encountering rancid walnuts sends one on an investigation of organic food. Does organic food never go rancid?

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