A 2015 survey of American consumers, commissioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation, reveals that only 61% have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, down from 78% in 2012. The top concern about food safety in the 2015 survey was “chemicals in food” (36%), up from 23% in 2014. That eroding confidence is impacting U.S. food corporations and causing more consumers to seek out food from sources they feel are more reliable.
To address these concerns, many big food companies are buying small organic rivals such as a recent Hormel acquisition. But the organic label only goes as far as you trust the implementation and enforcement of the organic rules, particularly with imports of organic products. For example A USDA report issued in 2009 raised concerns about China’s weak enforcement of food safety standards, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and its considerable environmental pollution. As to its organic foods, the report noted “recurring problems with “filth,” unsafe additives, labeling (typically introduced in food processing and handling), and veterinary drug residues in fish and shellfish (introduced at the farm).” Because of a shortage of organically produced food in the U.S., a large percentage of it is imported and about 1% is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.
Last year, National Public Radio reported on a new book, Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling by Peter Laufer, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. His research left him suspicious. The NPR story noted that the USDA has been trying to increase its enforcement of organic standards in the U.S. and they observe that there is little evidence of widespread fraud.
The organic certification process is a good standard. However, the further that you separate food production from the consumer, the more likely that it will not be grown in a way that meets the ecological, fair labor and food safety standards of the consumer.
As my favorite ag philosopher Wendell Berry is quoted as saying “An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.” Organic certification is an important tool. Eating local can be an even better way to learn about your food.