Is Your Local, Organic Food Neither Local Nor Organic?

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I hate to be a cynic, but I suppose it was inevitable: With consumers today increasingly willing to pay a premium for local and/or organic food, it was only a matter of time before the scam artists of the world exploited shoppers' good intentions.

Just in the last couple of weeks, two separate investigations uncovered cases of organic food fraud, or at least misrepresentation.

NBC Los Angeles exposed farmers' market vendors who were lying about where and how their food was grown. Reporters bought produce at farmers' markets across the Southland, then made surprise visits to farms where the items were supposedly grown.

Most were truthful, but a few weren't: the reporters found weeds or dirt where vegetables were supposed to be growing. In one case, a vendor admitted—after the reporters followed his truck to the wholesale warehouses in downtown Los Angeles—that he sold some items he had bought wholesale as his own, including avocados from Mexico. The investigation also found produce advertised as pesticide-free that tested positive for pesticides.

This sort of dishonesty isn't confined to big cities like Los Angeles. Even in my rural area, which has some good farm stands and farmers' markets, there are people who set up tables by the roadside and sell produce that couldn't possibly have been grown locally. (Plump, red tomatoes in June? Not around here.) As far as I know, they don't claim that they are selling locally grown produce. But they are taking advantage of the assumption of most people—especially tourists—that vegetables sold by the side of the road in a rural area are grown by a local farmer.

The other investigation, as Mother Jones magazine's environmental blog reported, was conducted by the Cornucopia Institute, an organization that says it promotes "economic justice for family-scale farming." The group rated organic egg producers according to their animal welfare and environmental practices, and found that some looked more like factory farms, at least by Cornucopia's standards.

In this case, part of the problem lies in the varied interpretations of "organic." As the report explains:

All organic egg producers claim to be following the federal organic standards, but with different working definitions and viewpoints of what the standards mean. For most consumers and many producers, organic farming means respecting underlying principles of the organic farming movement.... For others, especially industrial-scale producers, 'organic' appears to be nothing more than a profitable marketing term that they apply to the agro-industrial production system—simply substituting organic feed in their production model and eliminating harmful synthetic inputs, such as pesticides and antibiotics.

The latter interpretation, even if it doesn't match consumers' expectations, doesn't necessarily equate to fraud. But in several cases, Cornucopia found, farms were clearly misrepresenting their operations in their marketing.

Cornucopia's entire report, including its organic egg scorecard, is available online.

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