Think Organic Food is Worth the Price? This Could Make You Think Again

When you jack up your monthly grocery tab by opting for organic food, you have certain expectations.

You expect food that hasn’t been doused in pesticides. You expect the grower to have used only natural methods to grow it. You expect that your food has a less severe impact on the environment.

But the fuzzy feelings you have about what your decisions mean for your family and the world around you could just be wishful thinking.

That’s because it’s surprisingly easy for the “USDA Organic” label to show up on food that doesn’t live up to the standards set in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, especially for imported foods.

In fact, just last month, a shipment of 36 million pounds of non-organic soybeans and corn from Ukraine was suddenly “organic” by time it reached California.

The company that handled the shipment told The Washington Post it was “provided with false certification documents,” and most of the non-organic soybeans and corn had already been sold to customers who paid extra for what they thought was organic food.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating what went wrong in this instance, but according to The Washington Post, it’s not so surprising because holes in the USDA regulation process leave room for mislabeled food to get into your shopping cart.

How Foods Get the “USDA Organic” Label

The Organic Food Production Act lays out certain requirements for products grown in the U.S.

to receive the organic label.

  • The food must have been produced or handled without synthetic chemicals.
  • The food must be grown on land that has not been treated with any synthetic chemical or other prohibited substances within the past three years.
  • The companies that grow the food and handle it after harvest must all agree to adhere to the same organic labeling standards the USDA set.

For imported foods, a USDA-approved third party must verify that the companies meet these minimum standards.

What’s Going Wrong With Organic Labeling

According to an analysis from The Washington Post, those third-party contractors, both in the U.S. and internationally, make it difficult for the USDA to maintain blanket standards for all the food you buy.

While the USDA is responsible for regulating the organic food industry, its certifier locator shows that it only works with 81 third-party contractors to certify companies are properly producing food, and most of those regulators work here in the U.S.

For imported food, the USDA only recognizes government regulators in Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Switzerland. The USDA has only approved 33 of the 81 third-party organizations to regulate what food can be called organic in the rest of the world.

“In theory, this should all work very well,” The Washington Post said. “In practice, ensuring that imports labeled ‘organic’ are actually organic is very hard, because global supply chains are complex and nontransparent. A number of suppliers or organizations may sell the product before they reach the final customer.”

This means organic labels can show up (or disappear) anywhere along the way to the food’s final destination, and once the change happens, it could be difficult to know which foods are truly organic.

Ready for some worse news?

Well, limited resources and varying practices across the world make it tough for the USDA to fix the problem.

Think about that the next time you’re deciding if your organic soybeans are worth the extra bump in price.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennet) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She tries to eat organic whenever possible and is currently having an existential crisis because everything she believes may actually be a lie.