SHUMER REVEALS: PHONY AND FALSELY LABELED “ORGANIC” PRODUCTS THREATEN TO UNDERMINE DYNAMIC AND LUCRATIVE ORGANIC FOOD INDUSTRY IN YATES COUNTY; SENATOR DEMANDS USDA STEP UP ENFORCEMENT OF INFERIOR AND MISLABELED IMPORTED GOODS
Schumer: Newly Discovered Shipments Of Fraudulently Labeled Organic Products
Into U.S. Could Hurt American Farmers And Consumers If USDA Does Not Step
Up Oversight Of Imported Organic Foods
Senator Says If Mislabeled Organic Products Continue To Reach America It Would Undermine Consumer Trust In ‘Organic’ Brand – Thus Schumer Called On The USDA To Get Tough And Crack Down On Mislabeled Products From Making It To The American Market; Yates County Has More Organic Farming Than Anywhere In NY And We Need To Help It Grow
Schumer To USDA: Protect Yates County’s Organic Farmers From Foreign Fraud And Mislabeling
Standing with employees of Birkett Mills in Yates County, U.S Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer recently called on the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to work with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to examine and immediately address the issue of organic fraud. Schumer said the organic industry has greatly expanded in recent years and that food products mislabeled as organic threaten to undermine the growing industry in Yates County and beyond. Schumer argued that Birkett Mills and other Yates County organic producers and processors like Lakeview Organic Grain Mill in Penn Yan, which makes organic animal feed, will be hurt if the USDA does not work harder to address the issue of non-organic products entering the United States and being sold as USDA-certified organic.
“Agriculture is the backbone of Upstate New York’s economy. Increasingly, organic produce and products are becoming lucrative for producers across Yates County, enabling them to bring jobs and investments to the region. But these producers are threatened by foreign imports that illegally mislabel products and undermine New York’s famers. I am demanding that the USDA redouble their efforts and work to stop these producers in their tracks,” said Senator Schumer. “Consumers must know that when they purchase a product that says ‘certified organic’ that they are getting what they paid for. The threat of phony organics entering our domestic market could undermine that confidence. The USDA must work with the OIG to crack down immediately on these fraudulent products and ensure the continued growth and confidence in New York farmers’ organic production.”
Schumer pointed to last month’s Washington Post investigation that revealed proof of fraudulent grain shipments being sold in the United States. The report exposed a shipment of 36 million pounds of non-organic soybeans and corn shipped from Ukraine and Turkey to California that were illicitly labeled as “USDA organic” when they reached the U.S. The scam reportedly boosted soybeans prices by $4 million, while of course deceiving U.S. consumers and hurting U.S. organic producers, as more than 21 million pounds of the 36 million-pound shipment had already reached farms and mills by the time authorities acted.
Schumer explained that consumer demand for organic farming in New York and nationwide has been rapidly increasing over the last decade. According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), the number of Certified Organic Farmers reported to NYS has grown from 392 in 2005 to over 1,050 in 2015. According to the 2014 USDA Organic Census, New York State is the 3rd largest state for the number of organic farms, 4th in the number of organic farm acres, and 7th in annual sales, with over 1400 organic farms and businesses maintaining the USDA certified organic label. Schumer said with this important and rapidly expanding market, American growers and producers are currently being threatened by non-organic products being imported and sold to American consumers as USDA-certified organic. Schumer said that the USDA’s efforts have not stemmed the tide of non-organic imports and thus they must work with the OIG to determine new innovative ways to address the issues. Recent press reports detailing shipments of millions of pounds of non-organic corn and soybeans being illegally imported to and sold within the U.S. as certified organic shows the possibility of falsely labeled foreign imports entering the country despite not meeting the high standards of the organics program. These mislabeled products could seriously undermine consumer confidence and threaten the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), which uses accredited certifying agents and equivalency arrangements to facilitate the growing worldwide market for organic products. Schumer recognized the fiscal constraints but said that the USDA must work in conjunction OIG to protect American farmers.
The Birkett Mills has been in business in Penn Yan since 1797, with over 200 years of buckwheat, soft white wheat, and custom grain milling experience producing products for both the U.S. and Global markets. The Birkett Mills, which employs about 35 workers, produces a wide assortment of buckwheat and wheat consumer products including pancake mix, kasha, baking flour, and more. It also manufactures a line of certified USDA Organic buckwheat products including organic buckwheat flour, kasha, and other products. The Birkett Mills was recently re-certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA) as certified organic producer meeting USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Birkett contracts with local farmers and local organic farms to produce much of the grain it uses for its products.
Only certified producers may legally use the word “organic” or the USDA Organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. However, USDA reports have revealed that dozens of overseas producers have used fraudulent organic certificates to illegally market, label, or sell non-organic agricultural products as organic. At least two fraudulent Organic Certificates revealed by the USDA in 2012 and 2011 were of China-based production, and listed buckwheat among the agricultural products it fraudulently listed as certified organic.
Since the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Action (OFPA), the USDA has had the sole responsibility of certifying that products grown domestically and internationally meet organic standards. When a product is labeled ‘organic,’ that means that farmers produce the food with methods that maximize soil health, conserve water, and reduce air pollution. Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones.
In 2002, the USDA established standards for organic products. Meeting these standards is the core of the organic certification process - a process producers are required to complete before labeling a product as organic. The standards apply regardless of whether the product is from the United States or another country. USDA-approved state, non-profit and private agencies called “certifiers,” are charged with enforcing these standards to assure quality, prevent fraud, and to promote commerce. It’s imperative that the USDA enhance its oversight of organic products and ensure that products coming from foreign countries are indeed organic. Schumer pledged to continue to fight for American famers and to press the USDA to ensure the integrity of New York’s organic products.
A copy of Schumer’s letter appears below:
Dear Secretary Perdue:
I write to encourage the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine the evolving issue of organics fraud, which has the ability to harm both growers and consumers nationwide. I urge you to work in conjunction with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to issue a report that updates stakeholders on the steps USDA is taking to protect American farmers and consumers from non-organic products entering the United States and being sold as USDA-certified organic.
As you know, consumer demand for organic farming in New York and nationwide has been rapidly increasing over the last decade. According to New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM), the number of Certified Organic Farmers reported to NYS has grown from 392 in 2005 to over 1,050 in 2015. This critical new and evolving market for our growers and producers is currently being threatened by non-organic products being imported and sold to American consumers as USDA-certified organic. I strongly support the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and the continued use of accredited certifying agents and equivalency arrangements to facilitate the growing worldwide market for organic products, however, recent press reports detailing shipments of millions of pounds of non-organic corn and soybeans that were exported to the U.S. and sold illegally as organic are concerning. This fraud has the potential to erode confidence in the NOP and hurt our farmer’s nationwide who have met the standards to become USDA certified organic.
I request that you work with the OIG to examine and issue a report on the steps USDA is taking to protect our nation’s organic farmers and the consumers who value these products. Specifically, I ask that you report on a variety of different issues raised by stakeholders ranging from procedures for the reporting of bad actors between the USDA and foreign agencies, USDA information sharing and enforcement protocols for current and future NOP equivalency arrangements, Current USDA resource and staffing levels used to investigate and enforce NOP criteria for imports, as well as the USDA’s current authority and resources available to take measures against suspected fraud from bad actors. Issuing a comprehensive report on these pressing issues as well as working with stakeholders to come up with new best practices will help ensure the continued success of the NOP for years to come.
I understand that in the current fiscal climate resources are constrained. However, based on the critical importance of the NOP to America’s growers, producers, and consumers, I ask that you commit to working with the OIG on issuing this critical report as soon as possible.
Charles E. Schumer
United States Senator