Fixing the Organic Label

  • Mark Kastel, director of an industry watchdog group, says some so-called organic cows were being raised on factory farms instead of on pastures. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

They cost more, but sales of organic foods are rising. Even in this down economy, organic food sales are going up 3-times faster than other foods. Julie Grant reports… that’s happening as the government is working to make sure everything that’s labeled organic actually is organic:

Transcript

They cost more, but sales of organic foods are rising. Even in this down economy, organic food sales are going up 3-times faster than other foods. Julie Grant reports… that’s happening as the government is working to make sure everything that’s labeled organic actually is organic.

Near where I live in Ohio, it costs more to buy a half-gallon of organic milk than it does to buy a whole gallon of regular milk. So, that circular green and white seal that says “USDA Organic” better mean something.

Mark Kastel is director of the Cornucopia Institute. It’s an organic industry watchdog group. He says over the past decade, more and more people are buying organic – and the market share has grown. So, big business has moved in to get a piece of the action.

Kastel says some so-called organic cows were being raised on factory farms instead of on pastures.

“You really can’t milk 2-thousand or 5-thousand or 7-thousand cows and move them back and forth every day to pasture to graze them every day as the organic law requires.”

Kastel says part of the problem with milk production was that the rules didn’t specifically state how long cows had to be out on pasture. So, some weren’t getting any time eating grass – and were still being certified organic.

Kastel was among those who complained to the folks at the USDA’s national organic program about this.

“Corporate investments in large factory farms that are gaming the system and creating the illusion of practicing organics.”

That’s one reason why the Cornucopia Institute requested an audit of the National Organic Program.

“We need the force of law to come down and make sure that the organic label still means something.”

The USDA has responded. It started an audit of the organic program last year. At the same time, the program got more money… and hired a new director.

Miles McAvoy has inspected hundreds of organic farms and is now in charge of the national organic program. His first order of business was to help with that audit of the program. It found a lot of problems. But McAvoy is glad it was done.

“Basically, the report to me is a roadmap. It really outlines a lot of the fundamental problems that the national organic program has had and so it enables us to focus on those areas that really need to be addressed right away.”

The audit found that the organic program wasn’t cracking down on producers that labeled their foods organic, even if they violated organic rules. It found that the program wasn’t processing complaints in a timely way, and it wasn’t doing a good job inspecting farms in foreign countries. That meant that products imported from China and elsewhere might have the organic label, but not have been inspected properly.

McAvoy says the program just didn’t have enough money before to do everything it was supposed to do.

“Given the resources that the program had at the time, they did the best job that they could…”

Until recently, the national organic program had only eight people on staff.

McAvoy plans to hire more than 20 this year. And his office has already addressed most of the issues from the audit.

Organic watchdog Mark Kastel is pleased with the direction of the program. He says even the issue of cow pasture has been resolved. Milk labeled organic must now come from cows that are allowed to graze at least 120 days each year.

Kastel says the problems have come from a few bad actors. He says people are willing to pay more for organics because they want to support certain types of farms:

“I think we’re in a position with the current administration in Washington where we’ll be able to make sure those promises are kept.”

So the USDA Certified Organic label does mean something when you’re handing over more money to make sure animals and the land are treated better.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Tomato Blight Spreading

  • The blight hitting tomatoes is actually the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century. (Photo by T. A. Zitter, courtesy of Cornell University)

If you’ve been waiting all season
for that quintessential taste of
summer – a juicy, ripe tomato from
the garden – you might be disappointed.
This year a tomato blight has swept
across the Northeast and is moving
into Midwestern gardens and farms.
Julie Grant reports:

Transcript

If you’ve been waiting all season
for that quintessential taste of
summer – a juicy, ripe tomato from
the garden – you might be disappointed.
This year a tomato blight has swept
across the Northeast and is moving
into Midwestern gardens and farms.
Julie Grant reports:

Walk around this outdoor farm market in Cleveland and just say the words ‘tomato blight’ – nearly anyone in earshot has a story to tell.

Susan Myers says her home garden has given over to what she thinks is late blight.

“But it’s pretty serious. I mean, it’s like wiping out everything. I have lots of tomatoes and all the leaves are dropping. I’ve never, ever had that before.”

It doesn’t look like the farmers here are having trouble with tomato blight. Most tables are piled high with bright reds and yellows.

Skip Conant has a beautiful display of heirloom tomatoes – but he’s not sure how many more weeks he’ll have fruit to offer.

Conant: “We definitely have tomato blight. It’s been a cool, wet spring, so, yeah. There’s a fair amount tomato blight.”

Grant: “What does it look like?”

Conant: “You’ll see a yellowing and curling on the leaves and then the stem will turn brown. The plant will become a very brown. Die from basically the inside out or the bottom up.”

It’s hard to tell yet if these Midwestern growers are starting to see the same blight that decimated the northeast tomatoes.

Bill Fry is a plant pathologist at Cornell University. He’s studied late blight for 35 years. Fry says it looks like irregular shaped black spots, and can appear on the leaves or the fruit. It can destroy an entire crop in just a few days.

This is the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century. Growers have seen late blight since then. But Fry says, not at these epidemic proportions.

“The fact that it’s just everywhere is, I think, is the major difference from previous years.”

This wasn’t the first cool, wet spring on record. So, why has the blight so bad this year?

It’s kind of ironic. Fry and his colleagues have been studying the problem and think it’s probably because so many people are gardening. Millions more than just last year. And lots of those people bought tomato plants at stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

“Infected plants were sold throughout the northeast in the box stores. They were transplanted to home gardens and from there the pathogen disbursed to other home gardens, to conventional and organic farms.”

Fry says you might not even notice at the supermarket. Commercial tomato growers spray lots of fungicide to keep away the blight. But organic tomatoes are getting harder to find.

But chefs and tomato lovers who’ve waited all season for those locally-grown heirloom – and especially organic – tomatoes aren’t finding what they want in markets in the northeast.

Back at the Cleveland market, chef and restaurant owner Karen Small has been waiting for tomato season – and it finally hit. She depends on this market for her produce and stops at just about every stand.

But as Small hears farmer after farmer describe what they think is late blight – she’s worried about the weeks to come.

“We’re accustomed to having tomatoes well into September, and maybe that’s not going to happen this year.”

Small plans to go home and rip out the tomato plants in her home garden – after hearing late blight described so many times, she’s pretty sure her tomatoes are infected.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Investigating the Organic Label

  • Some organic watchdog groups say the National Organics Program has been too loose with its rules. (Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute)

Congress wants to dig deeper into an ongoing investigation of the National Organics Program. The program puts the little green “USDA Organic” label on products. Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

Congress wants to dig deeper into an ongoing investigation of the National Organics Program. The program puts the little green “USDA Organic” label on products. Mark Brush has more:

Congress passed a bill that will put more money toward investigating the USDA’s organic program.

Some organic watchdog groups say the National Organics Program has been too loose with its rules.

Mark Kastel is with the Cornucopia Institute. He’s one of those critics.

“They have been accused by reputable independent auditors of having ignored the will of Congress in how they are managing the organic program – favoring large factory farms – favoring unscrutinized products being imported from China – all this competing with our family farmers here in the United States.”

Kastel says that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

But he says the USDA organic label is still the gold standard. And most producers follow the law.

He and some leaders in Congress say an expanded review of the program will make sure that little green label keeps its credibility.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

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Organic Meat Hard to Find

  • Organic steak is hard to find, partly because so few slaughterhouses are certified organic. (Photo by David Benbennick, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Organic farmers would love to have you dig into more of their pork, chicken and beef. It’s not just because they’re proud about how they raise their animals – it’s because certified organic meat fetches high prices. But organic meat is harder to find than you’d expect, and it’s partly because there are few organically-certified slaughterhouses.
Shawn Allee found a farming community that came up with a solution:

Transcript

Organic farmers would love to have you dig into more of their pork, chicken and beef.

It’s not just because they’re proud about how they raise their animals – it’s because certified organic meat fetches high prices.

But organic meat is harder to find than you’d expect, and it’s partly because there are few organically-certified slaughterhouses.

Shawn Allee found a farming community that came up with a solution:

Dennis and Emily Wettstein turned their Illinois farm organic a while ago, mostly because conventional farming wasn’t practical for them.

“All the money seemed to go to pay for the fertilizers and the chemicals. And then I was more or less allergic to the chemicals. And so we were interested in getting away from that, especially if we were going to raise a family out here.”

The Wettsteins didn’t just raise grain organically – they kept chemicals and hormones out of their cattle.

“We started raising meat for ourselves and our families. Then, pretty soon, just word of mouth, friends and neighbors wanted meat.”

And, they found people who’d pay top dollar for their meat.

“We sell at the Oak Park farmers market.”

That’s just west of Chicago.

“Right. The Oak Park market managers, they are working on all the farmers to go towards organic.”

And that worked for the Wettsteins – they had USDA certified organic chicken.

“There’s one other meat vendor there – it’s not organic. So, we have no competition. We feel that, with that label on there, we can set our price to where we can make a profit.”

But Emily Wettstein says that term – organic – gave them trouble when it came to beef and other meat.

“We were getting a little bit pressured from other people, ‘Well, you can’t call your item organic. You don’t have a processing facility with the term of certified organic.'”

Here was the problem: For meat to get labeled USDA certified organic, it’s gotta be certified from the farm to the slaughterhouse.

The Wettsteins had someone to process organic chicken, but they were out of luck with pigs and cows.

There was no certified slaughterhouse for beef or pork in Illinois.

So, the Wettsteins and some relatives prodded meat lockers to get certified.
There was one taker.

“I’m inside a meat locker that’s about a fifteen minute drive from the Wettstein farm. It’s owned by Scott Bittner, and I’m here to understand what organic certification means for his business. How do I put this, there’s a headless, hoofless, skinless cow hanging from your ceiling. Where are we exactly?”

We’re on the kill floor. We had seventeen, eighteen cattle today. Seven of those were organic.

So, walk me through how you have to treat that organic cow differently.

It’s the first thing we did this morning – that’s one thing. Other than that, it’s segregating it in the cooler from the non-organic product and then processing it at a later time, which, again, you have to do first thing in the morning.

So, the basic idea is segregation?

Yeah, it is. The whole way through. Exactly.

Bittner’s simplifying things, but not much.

He has to clean or swap equipment between batches of organic and conventional meat.

There are rules on the kinds of chemicals he can use. And he hires a certification company to monitor his paper work.

Bittner says overall, it’s easy, and he’s surprised more slaughterhouses haven’t done it.

“Here we’re doing all our fabricating – grinding sausage, ground beef. Cutting some chops, ribs.”

“How does it feel to be the only guy who can process an organic side of beef?”

“I want to keep it quiet – I don’t want too many people to get started doing what I’m doing because it’s nice. I get two or three customers every year that I didn’t have before. When you go to bed at night and think about this economy being the way it is, every little bit helps.”

Bittner says farmers drive animals up to four hours to slaughter their animals here.

He says he’s proud of his work but can’t take too much credit; he knows he’s got a local organic slaughtering monopoly going.

That might change some day, but for now it’s reason enough to keep his knives sharp.

For the Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Organics Rotting in Bad Economy

  • Shopping at organic foods stores is one thing consumers are cutting back on (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy of the USDA)

Watching paychecks shrink and
retirement funds dissolve is making people
change their buying habits. Many are
skipping things like natural foods because
they’re seen as luxuries. But Julie Grant
reports some analysts say this is just a
short term trend:

Transcript

Watching paychecks shrink and
retirement funds dissolve is making people
change their buying habits. Many are
skipping things like natural foods because
they’re seen as luxuries. But Julie Grant
reports some analysts say this is just a
short term trend:

Michelle DeSalvo’s daughter plans to go to college next
year. But her husband might need to take a pay cut just to
keep his job. So they’re trying to save money wherever
possible. That means no more shopping at the natural foods
store.

Michelle DeSalvo: “It’s definitely more expensive. You have
to go to things that are less expensive and natural is
definitely not that.”

Julie Grant: “So what has changed in your shopping habits?”

Michelle DeSalco: “I go to Wal-Mart. (laughs) Yeah, for
food. It’s cheaper.”

Not everyone is rushing to Wal-Mart.

Brenda Fisher says her family is struggling to pay for two
kids in college, and they’re looking for different ways to buy
food. She used to stop at the butcher shop at Whole Foods
– the national, natural foods supermarket. But not anymore.

“So I would buy their meats because their meats are
incredible. So um, I just can’t afford it. I would actually like
to buy a whole cow from a farmer, because they’re cheaper.
And I just have to get the money together.”

Okay, so not everyone wants to buy a cow. But a lot of
people are moving away from things that seem more
expensive – like natural and organic products.

In recent years, those foods have seen huge sales growth.
But as the economy has turned sour, so have their sales.
Whole Foods Store has seen a considerable sales drop at its
stores. And the company’s stock prices plunged more than
70% this year.

Nancy Koehn is professor of the history of retailing and
consumer behavior at the Harvard business school.
She says some people see upscale stores such as Whole
Foods as an indulgence – and that’s not what they’re
wanting.

“I think we will see, we are seeing, a rush away from a lot of
luxury right now.”

Koehn says that’s short term. She says consumers have
been floored by the tanking of the stock market and the
vulnerability of the financial systems. And they’ve done
something we haven’t seen in 25 years: they’ve stopped
buying.

But Koehn says this is just one moment. She says people
will walk back into stores. But they will have revised
priorities for their homes and families.

“There’s no way anyone’s coming out of this moment without
being effected by it. It’s a much more complicated story than
the rush to Wal-Mart.”

Koehn says natural foods stores, like Whole Foods, and
other environmentally-centered companies, are actually in
just the right place for the long term economic trend. When
consumers start buying again, she thinks, many will spend
money in places that are taking care of workers, animals,
and the environment.

“And I think we’re going to see that the same things that built
Whole Foods, that have made the environment and our
interconnectedness so important to people, and moved that
from item number 10 or 20 on people’s lists of important
issues up to the top 2 to 4. Those aren’t going away because
we’re in the trough of a business cycle.”

Koehn expects that many people will spend their holiday
money at big box discount stores. But she says many who
feel they’ve been treated badly in the economic downturn will
go back to the companies they think treat people and the
environment better.

Koehn expects that by early next year, companies that get
behind sustainable products will wind up being the economic
winners.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

CUBA SETS EXAMPLE FOR ORGANIC FARMERS (Part 2)

  • Cuban growers examine their crops. Farmers in Cuba have been successful in growing their own crops after the Soviet Union collapsed ten years ago. Photo by Mary Stucky

Cuba is in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in alternative agriculture… an experiment that’s attracting the attention of farmers in the Great Lakes. When the Soviet Union collapsed ten years ago, so did Cuba’s economy. Lacking money to import food or the chemicals to grow it, the Cuban government made a bold move — embracing organic farming and natural pest control. In the second of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky takes a look at the lessons farmers may learn from Cuba’s organic experiment:

Transcript

Cuba is in the midst of an unprecedented experiment in alternative agriculture… an experiment that’s attracting the attention of farmers in the Great Lakes. When the Soviet Union collapsed ten years ago, so did Cuba’s economy. Lacking money to import food and the chemicals to grow it, the Cuban government made a bold move – embracing organic farming and natural pest control. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky takes a look at the lessons Great Lakes farmers may learn from Cuba’s organic experiment.


The agricultural transformation in Cuba is striking. In a land only recently dependent on imported chemicals, much of the farmland is now cultivated without chemical fertilizer or chemical pest controls. In a land where people were once starving, a vast system of urban gardens are producing more than half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Cuba, completely without the use of chemicals. So while certain foods like meat and milk are in short supply, the United Nations reports that most Cubans are now consuming enough calories for a healthy life.
There’s a pride in proving alternative agricultural methods can feed a country’s people. Fernando Funes made that point in the busy lunchroom at the agricultural research facility he runs near Havana.


“In the whole world we are a handful of people trying to go ahead with this struggle and we have to show that we are producing more healthy products that is healthy for nature. I don’t know what will happen in the future but I guess in my opinion, we are not going to come back because we have been proving very well that this paradigm is going to substitute the other one.”


Funes is out to spread the message that even the most chemical fertilizer and pesticide dependent farming can be transformed. Folks like the University of Minnesota’s Bill Wilcke are listening. Wilcke was recently in Cuba studying its agricultural innovations.


“Their solution is ‘what do we have to fix the problem,’ trying to make use of their natural resources and their own human resources to make this work.”


It’s not that they don’t use any fertilizer, or pest controls – they do. It’s just that they involve far less chemicals. For instance, Cuba’s approach to fertilizer involves the production of worm humus in so-called vermiculture facilities – where staff regularly invites curious American farmers to visit.


“We use commonly just manure, but also the kitchen residues and many other organic matters. They eat double their size.”


This Cuban farmer explains how they feed manure or garbage to the worms, which then transform it into a richer, more potent fertilizer. That fertilizer has been used to dramatically improve yields for some crops in Cuba.


(Ambient sound from lab)


Throughout rural Cuba there are more than 200 centers for the production of natural pest controls – including bacteria that devour insect larvae. That’s an inexpensive – and largely effective – alternative to chemical pesticides. Alternatives such as these are well known in the United States. But because of the ready availability of chemicals and because alternatives don’t work well on some big cash crops, they’re little used in the U.S. right now. Still, developing alternatives makes good sense to the University of Minnesota’s Bill Willcke.


“I don’t know if we need to advocate abandoning technology, but I think we need to think about what some of our options are and we have to think about the scale of our agriculture, the kinds of technology that we use.’


Some economists say it’s foolish for countries like the U.S. to imitate Cuba. They say, why go back to what some call medieval farming methods, why use valuable urban land to grow food. But Minor Sinclair disagrees. Sinclair lived in Havana in the 1990’s, representing Oxfam America, a charity working on food policy. Sinclair says Cuba may be sitting on a gold mine, with the increasing demand for organic food.


“Will Cuba’s agriculture be able to be a lighthouse for other developing countries in the region, and in some way even for farmers here in the United States. I hope so.”


Maybe someday, but most experts do not expect to see a system of organic farming and urban gardens widely embraced in the U.S. any time soon, at least not without a food crisis of Cuban proportions.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky.

Food Co-Ops Losing Grip on Health Food Market

There was a time when people who ate organic and natural foods
were considered the hippie-fringe. But healthy eating is becoming more
mainstream, and the market for natural and organic foods is growing.
That’s causing some shifts in the food industry. Small mom and pop
stores are no longer the only places to find health foods.
Conventional
supermarkets have organic produce sections and large natural food stores
are opening nationwide. This has many small stores wondering how they
are going to survive. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant
reports: