Think You're Getting Organic? Think Again
People ask me all the time how I come by my vast stores of knowledge about the food industry. (Or maybe no one ever asks me that. Whatever.) I always say the same thing: I don't know anything, but I follow the work of people who do. One of my favorites is Peter Whoriskey, tenacious reporter for the Washington Post.
Peter is a staff writer for the Post covering business, healthcare, and health. He was recognized with a National Press Foundation award in 2011 and a Polk Award in 2013.
I've been reading Peter's work for years. I took a particular interest in 2015, when he broke a major story about "organic" eggs produced in the torturous confines of large-scale, industrial chicken operations. "If you want to do just one thing to learn more about what's going on in organics," Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer, once told a group of Co-op members, "read the work of Peter Whoriskey." I agree.
"In my reporting, I’ve met a lot of organic farmers who I think are doing honest, very good work," Peter told me in an email. "It’s important to emphasize that. I don’t want anyone to think I am condemning the entire industry. But I think there’s evidence out there to suggest that the USDA hasn’t put enough thinking or resources out there to ensure that the 'USDA Organic' label means what it promises."
Across the country, farmers, consumers, and activists have questioned the integrity of the label and the National Organic Program. There appears to be plenty of reason for concern.
These days, farms that raise animals in concentrated feed lots, rather than on pastures, can produce foods labeled as organic. Certified organic grain can be tainted with GMOs. And hydroponic vegetables—grown in a soup of chemicals and water rather than in soil—can qualify as organic.
To raise awareness of labeling standards and the mercurial actions of the NOP, organic fans, farmers, and activists have held a number of Rally in the Valley events over the past year. A Hanover, NH, rally is planned for October 15.
"Unfortunately, there appears to be good reason for consumers to wonder about the integrity of the label," Peter said. "Just to recap: At one of the nation’s largest 'organic' dairies—supplying Walmart and Costco—we found that the cows were not grazing as required. We’ve found millions of pounds of conventional corn and soybeans coming into the U.S. and, though they’d been treated with pesticide, sold as 'USDA Organic.' And we’ve found one of the largest 'organic' egg producers in the country keeps hens at a density of three per square foot of floor space."
The USDA reacted to the "bogus organic" grains coming in to the U.S. and took action, Peter told me. Some of those involved were decertified from the organic program. "But from what I can see," he said, "the USDA hasn’t moved much on the other issues."
Want to read more of Peter's work on organics? Here's my list of recommended reading: