A recent Harris poll found that, by and large, consumers were skeptical about the benefits of organic food and not eager to pay more for it. In fact, the survey found that 59% of consumers believe labeling a food as “organic” is simply an excuse to charge more for it.
While that survey mostly measured attitudes about food and the environment, it turns out there may be reasons to be skeptical about the supposed health benefits of organic and locally-grown food as well.
A widely publicized 2012 Stanford University study concluded that organic food doesn't provide any health benefits over conventionally-produced food. The question that is seldom asked is whether organic food is as safe as conventional foods.
The answer, according to one critic of federal food safety efforts, is that it may not be.
"The system lets so many foreign products in, organic consumers might as well save their money," said Mischa Popoff, a former organic food inspector, advisor to the Heartland Institute and author of "Is It Organic?" a self-published book that explores what Popoff says are shortcomings in organic food inspection and production.
Find a farmer
"It’s one thing to go out and find a farmer and buy directly but if you go to Whole Foods and buy something that's certified organic, it could be from Turkey," he said, noting the recent recall of pomegranate seeds grown in Turkey.
"You don’t know if it's safe. How do you know that the farmer didn’t use Round-Up, that he didn’t cheat, that there weren't human feces in his fields? There’s only a once-annual, announced inspection by agents of the USDA."
Since the USDA "outsources" inspection duties to independent contractors, there is no assurance that those inspectors are qualified, thorough or even honest, Popoff told ConsumerAffairs. Complicating matters further is that in countries that are part of the European Union (EU), the USDA accepts EU inspections on an "equivalency" basis, he said.
So should health-conscious consumers do all their shopping at local farmers' markets? Not according to Popoff.
"The best thing about the farmers' market is that it provides you a chance to meet the farmers. Then you can go out to their farm and be your own eyes and ears," he said. "But beyond that, it's a hornet's nest.
"You see a lot of reselling going on," Popoff said. "A farmer used to pay $50 a year for his table but now a lot of farmers' markets are like little strip malls. The farmer could be paying thousands of dollars a year for his table. So if he runs out of carrots, guess what? He's going to find carrots somewhere."
In fact, farmers' markets in most areas are the most unregulated part of the supply chain, Popoff argues: "There's no way to verify the food was really grown locally or that it's really organic. You're just taking the word of the guy who says he's a farmer."
Who's to blame? As usual, Congress gets much of the blame but Popoff says the USDA also needs to take a stronger hand and put its own inspectors into the field instead of relying on independent contractors.
The people in the USDA's national organic program offices have never gone out to do an actual inspection. "They've lost their connection to the world," Popoff said.
At its most basic level, inspection of food crops by USDA is supposed to make sure there are no uncomposted fecal matter -- human or animal -- in the food. That's because feces is at the root of many Salmonella, E. coli and other common contaminants yet he claimed USDA does not test as often as it should for fecal matter, choosing instead to run more expensive tests for Round-Up and other prohibited substances.
Popoff not popular
Not surprisingly, Popoff's view is not exactly popular in the organic movement.
"Popoff is a conservative ideologue, a global warming denier, an ardent critic of hybrid automobiles, and has suggested that the American mortgage crisis that precipitated the financial meltdown was caused by 'overregulation,'" said Mark A. Kastel, codirector at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
But Cornucopia stops short of dismissing everything Popoff says. Popoff suggests that the entire certification process is without merit and should be replaced with a testing protocol for prohibited toxic chemicals.
“We think there is great merit in doing spot testing, as Congress required, and we have criticized the USDA for not having implemented testing until now, but it would be prohibitively expensive to test all farms and crops and would not substitute for other careful oversight protocols,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia's research director.
The organic movement is at the moment sort of like the electric-car or open source software movements -- a relatively small group of ardent enthusiasts arguing over details that are at best obscure and at worst stultifying to the outside observer.
While Popoff may be seen as extreme by some, there is general agreement that -- with more than 8 million cases of food poisoning per year, according to federal health statistics -- food safety in the United States is embarrassingly inadequate.
FDA catches flak
It's the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that is in charge of ensuring the safety of most food once it leaves the farm, and is therefore the agency that's on the receiving end of a lot of criticism whenever a major food contamination crisis erupts.
"The FDA is picking up the flack because the USDA doesn’t do its job," Popoff said. "Once it leaves a farm, it’s food not a crop or an animal. Once it's harvested it becomes an FDA problem. The FDA can't go back and fix everything the USDA should have caught in the first place."