Phony Organics Lurk on Produce Racks

Last Updated Mar 17, 2008 3:32 PM EDT

Grocers including Whole Foods Market, Kroger and Stop & Shop have had to hire third party verifiers to root out produce that contains pesticide residue despite the green-and-white USDA Organic seal, the CEO of product tester Scientific Certification Services says.

Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Consumers Union found pesticide residue in 23 percent to 28 percent of fruits and vegetables labeled "certified organic." The problem persists five years after implementation of the organic rule.

Asked if that figure was from chemicals lingering in the soil, SCS co-founder Stan Rhodes simply responds, "Nope. Fraud." Not on the part of the retailer, but the supposedly organic producer, who puts an organic sticker on conventionally-grown carrots and kumquats and jacks up prices accordingly.

Or maybe the sleight-of-hand artist is a middleman, like the guy in Hawaii who was buying basil from a farmer's market, adding the organic seal and selling it to supermarkets at a premium price. The residue on it was so high, Rhodes reports, "if you had made pesto from it, you could have gone to the hospital."

The USDA's National Organic Program, after all, was established as a marketing program, not a statement of purity. As an organic certifier, SCS shows up annually to check a producer's paperwork "and then he's free and clear for another year," Rhodes says.

This irks the good organic actors -- and there are many -- and jeopardizes an industry that has been growing twice as fast as the food business as a whole. For retailers such as Whole Foods that have gone to the trouble of certifying their entire premises as organic, it puts both money and reputation at risk.

That's why SCS developed third-party "organic plus" verification programs to check for pesticides, pathogens, industrial contaminants and genetically modified organisms. And it's why grocers pay SCS to pluck apples and potatoes off their produce displays and spot-check them, Rhodes says. "They're beginning to realize, 'We gotta protect the claim.'"

When it comes to organic veracity, SCS's retail clients are "99.9 percent pure," Rhodes says. The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition handles testing, Rhodes says, but the center's budget has been slashed. That leaves smaller operators, manufacturers and restaurant vulnerable to peddlers of bogus basil and pesticide potatoes.

  • Lisa Everitt

    A Denver-based business writer, Lisa Everitt is a veteran of daily and weekly newspapers and trade magazines, including The Natural Foods Merchandiser, Rocky Mountain News, Inter@ctive Week, San Francisco Business Times, and the Peninsula Times Tribune.