Organic industry watchdog calls for independent investigation of USDA organic program

Corruption in the cantaloupe patch? While we’re all no doubt preoccupied with certain other investigations, those entrenched in capital-O organic world are calling for an investigation of their own. The Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog, is asking for an independent investigation of the USDA organic program.

Fresh off a victorious campaign that led to a ban on carrageenan in USDA organic-certified food, Cornucopia will apparently stop at nothing to protect the consumer from the big bad USDA.

This time, the organization is dubious about the integrity of the National Organic Program.

This time, the organization is dubious about the integrity of the National Organic Program (NOP). The NOP enforces the rules that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommends. But NOP has ignored new rules in the past (namely, NOSB’s recommended ban of hydroponics and aquaponics from the organic label) and Cornucopia Institute sees this as a compromise of the label’s integrity. So now it’s appealed to USDA’s Office of Inspector General for an independent audit, something it’s done a few times before.

Maybe it’s because it gets dark at 4:30 now, or maybe it’s because Dan Charles over at NPR published a lovely story yesterday about the real people who produce carrageenan (it’s really just seaweed) who just lost a lot of business when carrageenan’s reputation became suspect, but it’s hard to get psyched for another round of pesticide-free mud slinging. The underlying assumption in an accusation like Cornucopia’s is that organic is more than just a label: it’s a proclamation of all that is healthy and good and cruelty-free.

But that’s a pretty easy assumption to poke holes in. Criticisms of the USDA organic certification’s environmental impact abound—just google Big Organic. And beyond that, organic certification is too expensive for a lot of the family farmers the Institute is purporting to advocate for. And about that healthy halo: the carrageenan ban was based on a few studies that said it caused intestinal inflammation, and there’s scant, if any, evidence that hydroponically grown lettuce is inferior to its soil-based counterpart. Remember, the organic seal isn’t actually supposed to guarantee anything about food safety or health. Our columnist Pat Clinton articulated all the problems with the carrageenan debate in his brilliant take here.

Devoting too much page space to the integrity of a certification feels like a losing battle (though we did that here for Fair Trade—have at it). If something is profitable enough, it’s never long before big companies want a piece of it. We can call for independent audits and we can ban stabilizing agents like carrageenan, but none of that fundamentally changes the way environmental regulations are enforced or the way our food supply is inspected. Nevertheless, rest assured there are people out there fighting for the integrity of your organic lettuce—just as long as that lettuce is grown using their definition of the term.

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.