Today, I was interviewed on KCBS radio news, based in San Francisco. Our topic was organic certification, and two people threw questions at me which I had to answer on the fly. The questions were old ones: should we trust the organic label, how common is fraud, and so on. Mind you, I completely support organic food, warts and all, so I never like to say “fraud is rampant” and I also don’t care to say things that cast aspersions on organic food. I do not think fraud is rampant, but there is some (although how much is not clear).
I think all systems have some degree of fraud, and I am ok with that. I believe that reducing all fraud is cost prohibitive (I am motivated by the comparison of marginal benefit and marginal cost; it is instinctive for me. I bet it would be for you, too, if you took 30 or so courses in economics.)
But cheating in the organic world is worth a closer look. The food itself is not certified as organic; instead, the manner in which it was produced on the farm and then handled as it makes its way to your plate is certified. In economics jargon, this means the organic standard is a process standard, and not a product standard. There are two crucial parts of this system: (1) the agents that certify farms or handlers as organic, and (2) the people who carry out the business from day to day. The certifier is an agent accredited by USDA as having the power to determine whether a farm’s or handler’s business plan is in keeping with the organic standard. Thus, in this sense, the certifier has the most power in the game, since he/she is responsible for approving the plan. Next, the farmer/handler has to follow the business plan each day.
This suggests that a consumer who is interested in buying organic food that indeed is produced and handled according to the regulation shouldn’t be looking for just the organic seal. I always check for the certifier’s name. Identifying the certifier is not hard, since the name is required to be somewhere on the label. A product without a certifier’s name should immediately raise a red flag.
The list of accredited certifiers is updated fairly regularly. Looking for the name of the certifier – in addition to the logo – can provide additional information as we shop for organic food.