- Zizira explorers come across a breezy book by Peter Laufer, on the truth behind food labels that carry the stamp of ‘Organic’.
- The book is about the author’s hunt to find the origin of two products labeled ‘Organic’, which he buys off the shelves of two major retailers in the U.S. One, a packet of walnuts from Trader Joe’s, and the other, a can of beans from Natural Directions.
The Genesis of ‘Organic’ in the U.S.Before we go back to the book, let us see when the shift started towards Organic and how it works. The Organic movement started in the early 1960s. Later certifying agencies like ‘California Certified Organic Farmers’ and ‘Oregon Tilth‘ were founded. These were not-for-profit organizations. But, seeing the business opportunity in certifying products with the organic ‘stamp’ a group of entrepreneurs founded ‘Quality Assurance International’, a for profit operation to provide Organic certification. In fact, it is one of the largest organic certifier in the World.
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Wheels within Wheels?The parent company of Quality Assurance International (QAI) is NSF International, which develops public health standards and tests and certifies products and systems. QAI, which is authorized to certify organic products, is a private company authorized by US Department of Agriculture.
Is it not interesting that not only does a private company provide organic certification the world over, it is one of the biggest to do so. And, its parent company develops standards for certification! Wheels within wheels?Note that the size of the Organic produce and products in the US alone is to the tune of $ 43 billion. Back to the book!
How Many Does It Take to Monitor Organic Certification?According to the author, at the time of writing the book, the USDA Organic Certification program was staffed by less than 30 people, while the sales of organic food totalled $ 27 billion. Currently the sales are over $ 43 billion. Such a large volume of business, and just a handful of people to monitor.
How does the certification for Organic Food Labels work?
- Organic Certification is not issued directly by the USDA Organic Program (USDAOP). They have certifying agencies registered with them. USDAOP oversees these certifying agencies.
- To become a certifier under USDAOP the organization must meet standards of inspection specified.
- The certifying agencies pay USDAOP to be registered as inspectors.
- The food product manufacturers have to pay the certifying agencies to get certified, so they can use Organic Food Labels.
A Coffee Farmer Who Opted Out of Organic CertificationInterestingly, there are farmers who choose not to seek certification as it is cumbersome and expensive to do so. The author meets one such - a Coffee Farmer in Costa Rica who uses organic cultivation methods, but does not want to pay a certifier to get the seal.
Why? “They’re expensive and they’re a lot of work. In the coffee business the guy who benefits the most is the roaster, not the farmer.” Both, the farmer who grows coffee and the roaster, have to get certified if the final coffee is to be labelled organic. The roaster is able to pass the cost to the consumer.
Finally, the author traces the farm in Bolivia that grows the black beans he bought from Natural Directions and finds them to be organic. His encounter with the farmer leaves a lasting impression on him. The farmer, Carayuri, is a leader of the Guarani Indigenous community in the countryside near Charagua. In addition to farming duties he teaches at the primary school.
End of the Trail: Bolivia Beans Organic
The author finds that the farmers follow indigenous traditions that revolve around mother earth which gives the satisfaction of living well in contrast to the capitalist goal of living better. This reminded the Zizira explorers of farmers in Meghalaya. Humble, hardworking, working the land, but never exploiting it.
Walnuts – Origin not TraceableAs regards the walnuts, the author lodges a complaint with the USDA and gets a reply as a letter from the Compliance and Enforcement division of the National Organic Program’s (NOP), which says that the QAI (Quality assurance International) found no evidence that Trader Joe’s sources walnuts from Kazakhstan.
So, the mystery of the source of the rancid walnuts from a packet labeled Organic, was not solved. The packet said ‘sourced from Kazakhstan’, but the letter from NOP said Trader Joe’s did not source walnuts from Kazakhstan. Duh!
What Ails Organic Industry?The author ends the books with a list of ‘flaws’ that plague organic commerce:
- There is lack of business transparency in the International organic food industry.
- There are inherent conflicts of interest when the farmers and the food processors are inspected and certified organic and then pay the inspection and certification operators for their services.
The Answer?The answer, according to the author, Dr. Peter Laufer:
The Wild Organic West is ripe with opportunities for hustlers. Labels distract, mislead and lie. Grow your own. Know your farmer. Or buy organic labels with your fingers crossed.This is some book. For now, a strong message to Zizira is to continue to know the farmers from whom we source produce for our produce and to double check that they follow practices that will qualify as organic. Have you read this book? Do you have anything else to share about Organic labels? Share please. Can’t wait to hear.