Farmers face organic food fraud charges

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Midwest farmers convicted of fraudulently selling $142 million of grain as organic. Photo by LilacDragonfly from Pexels

The conviction of five Midwestern U.S. farmers of selling non-organic grains as organic intensified growing concerns over organic food fraud.

John Burton, a farmer from Clarksdale, Missouri, pled guilty, Friday, May 10, and was convicted on one count of wire fraud for fraudulently selling $142 million in organic grain.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in a statement, Burton admitted that grain grown on non-organic fields was marketed and sold as organic along with the use of unapproved substances on certified organic grounds.

Ongoing investigation

Three additional farmers from Nebraska pled guilty and were convicted of one count of wire fraud in October 2018 as part of an earlier, broader probe by the United States Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Tom Brennan, James Brennan, and Mike Potter, from Overton, Nebraska, all admitted to growing non-organic grain that they knew was being marketed and sold as organic.

According to the DOJ, from 2010 to 2017, each of the three farmers received more than $2.5 million for that grain.

All four plea deals are related to a case involving Randy Constant, owner of the grain brokerage firm, Jericho Solutions, located in Ossian, Iowa.

Constant, a resident of Chillicothe, Missouri, was convicted on December 20, 2018, of one count of wire fraud for fraudulently selling $142,433,475 worth of non-organic grain as organic.

According to the DOJ, Constant falsely told customers he sold grain grown on his certified organic fields in Nebraska and Missouri.

However, the grains were not organic because he either purchased them from other growers, sprayed certified organic fields with non-GMO substances, or mixed organic grain with the non-organic grain.

As part of his plea deal, Constant agreed to forfeit $128,190,128 in proceeds from the scheme.

The judge set sentencing for Constant, Tom Brennan, James Brennan, and Potter on August 16, 2019. Scheduled sentencing for Burton occurs after preparation of a presentence report, the DOJ says.

All five men face a maximum sentence of 20 years, a $250,000 fine, and up to three years of supervised release following any imprisonment.

Growing problem

A 2017 report by the Washington Post discovered weaknesses in the U.S. Agricultural Department’s ability to verify the chain-of-custody of supposed “organic” grains imported from Eastern Europe.

According to the paper, three shiploads, equating to “millions of pounds of ‘organic’ corn or soybeans,” entered the country during that period.

Those grains, designated as animal feed, have a direct impact on the authenticity of organic food. “Organic eggs, organic milk, organic chicken and organic beef are supposed to come from animals that consume organic feed, an added expense for farmers that contributes to the higher consumer prices on those items,” the Post says.

While a great deal of focus is on the import of fraudulent organic food, the conviction of the five Midwestern farmers indicates the problem is not just with imports but with domestic suppliers as well.

In a nod towards the problem, the Organic Trade Association recently rolled out a plan it had been developing for the past two years. Its Organic Fraud Prevention Solutions program is designed to fight fraud in the global system.

“Fraud in the global organic supply chain poses a significant threat to the integrity of the organic brand,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, in a statement. “For the past two years, the Organic Trade Association has prioritized significant time and resources into organic fraud prevention solutions. We are fighting fraud on many fronts, including through the 2018 Farm Bill and through private sector initiatives. The more companies that join this industry-driven program, the stronger the organic supply chain will be.”

The organization says the program is not a label, and it does not involve certification or verification. It is merely a quality assurance program in which organic businesses can voluntarily enroll to help minimize or eliminate organic food fraud both inside and outside of the United States.harges

Nevada Organic Farmers Consider Private Certification Programs

organic-farming

NEVADA — With the Nevada Department of Agriculture board of directors voting to end the state’s organic certification program on June 30, 2016, local organic farmers are reviewing their options.

According to the Nevada Appeal:

On June 16, a gathering of growers, producers and sellers discussed the feasibility of a private certification program and whether it could be up and running before the program officially closes June 30, 2016. State organic certifications, however, will expire in March 2016, and growers and producers will have a three-month grace period before getting certified with a new organization.

Their options are complicated by the fact that there are no private certification firms located in the state, the paper says, and the expense of using out-of-state firms could drive up costs impacting the ability of small farms to remain competitive.

Driscoll’s Expands Organic Strawberry Nursery Plant Production

Driscoll's, organic berries, organic farming, strawberries
Driscoll's, organic berries, organic farming, strawberries
Photo: Driscoll’s

WATSONVILLE, CA — On the heels of news of recent investments in organic farming by companies like Clif Bar & Co. and General Mills, premium berry cooperative Driscoll’s, says it plans to expand production of organic strawberry nursery plants for its independent, USDA certified organic farmers.

“Since our first sales of organic berries in the late 1980’s, we’ve seen tremendous growth in our organic business due to increasing consumer market demand,” said Soren Bjorn, executive vice president.  “We are committed to fully deliver on the spirit of the organic program across all our berries and see this process as a journey to an exciting future.”

According to Driscoll’s, its organic strawberry nursery began seven years ago, and is the only one certified by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). With nearly 10 percent of organic strawberry production at its Watsonville and Salinas farms coming from certified plants, the company says it plans to expand the program to other berries in the coming years.

Clif Bar Aims to Raise $10 Million for Organic Farming Research

Clif Bar, Organic Valley, organic farming research
Clif Bar, Organic Valley, organic farming research
Photo: Clif Bar

EMERYVILLE, CA — Organic farming got a boost with the recent announcement from Clif Bar & Co., maker of the popular energy bar LUNA and other health food and drinks, that it plans to raise approximately $10 million dollars for organic farming research.

The company teamed with the 1,800 member organic farming cooperative Organic Valley to create a first-of-its-kind endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that will study the development of crop varieties for organic farming. The organizations started with a $1 million investment that was matched by UW graduates John and Tashia Morgridge.

Clif Bar says it plans to raise $10 million from additional partners by 2020 to fund a total of five endowed chairs across the country.

“We can no longer depend on an agricultural system that is reliant on toxic chemicals,” Kevin Cleary, CEO of Clif Bar said in a statement. “We must instead invest in our organic future by spurring innovation and diversifying away from these temporary spray-on solutions. Today’s endowed chair is an important first step toward this goal.”

Microsoft’s Urban Farming Featured at Milan Expo 2015

Microsoft urban farming, milan expo 2015, USA Pavilion
Microsoft urban farming, milan expo 2015, USA Pavilion
Photo credit: Milan Expo 2015/USA Pavilion

MILAN, ITALY — The Milan Expo 2015, which opened May 1 and runs through October 31 in Milan, Italy, has already had its fair share of well-known visitors, including First Lady Michelle Obama. And many more visitors and tourists are expected during the next six months.

The main theme of this year’s Universal Exposition is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The focus of the expo is on the future of the global food system as well as sustainability. The USA Pavilion expands on that thought with its supporting theme: “American Food 2.0: United to Feed the Planet,” highlighting the innovation in the American food market as well as environmental technology.

On June 9 in the USA Pavilion, Mark Freeman, the senior manager of Microsoft’s Global Employee Services, discussed the company’s urban farming program at its Redmond, WA, headquarters, which serves 40,000 meals daily. According to Freeman, 60 percent of its produce needs are sourced locally through relationships with area farmers. However, the company expanded on those efforts by launching an urban farming center to produce additional vegetables with hydroponic systems.

Up next at the USA Pavilion on Friday, June 19 is the “Urban Farming, Sustainability, and Nutrition” event featuring Will Allen, Urban Farmer, Founder and CEO of Growing Power; Nicolas Jammet, Co-CEO, Sweetgreen; and Dr. Risa J Lavizzo-Mourey, President and CEO, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Member of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.

Organic Ancient Grain Profiled on “Modern Living”

Freekeh Foods, organic, ancient grains
Photo credit: Freekeh Foods

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — Organic ancient grains are all the rage in the U.S. with quinoa perhaps the most well known. But on the rise is freekeh, a roasted green wheat, that is low in sodium and high in protein and fiber.

One company generating a bit of buzz is Minneapolis, MN-based Freekeh Foods whose president, Troy De Smet, recently sat down with former model Kathy Ireland on her lifestyle show “Modern Living.”

Smet not only discussed Freekeh but the issues facing the organic farming industry including the challenge of meeting higher consumer demand, as the industry is trending mainstream, with the small number of organic farmers in the U.S. today.

The interview aired on E! Entertainment Network last Thursday and will air again on Bloomberg International  June 14th at 10:00am CST.

General Mills Invests In Organics

General Mill, organic, Annie's
General Mills acquired the organic Annie’s brand in 2014.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN  – General Mills is betting on the organics market to go from niche to mainstream in the food industry and is making moves to position itself accordingly.

According to Ad Age, the foods giant is looking to grow its natural and organic food division to $1 billion by 2020: It is currently making $600 million in revenue. Earlier this year it announced that several varieties of its Cheerios brand would go gluten-free this summer.

A recent $50,000 investment in the Canadian-based Prairie Organic Grain Initiative (POGI) is another example of General Mills’ commitment to growing its organic sales. POGI is a multi-year program designed to build and stabilize the organic field crop sector and increase the number and quality of organic field crops in Canada.

“We’re excited to join the Prairie Organic Grain Initiative. We believe this program represents a significant opportunity for General Mills to further build our capabilities and pave the way for General Mills to become an industry leader in natural and organic,” said Beth Robertson Martin, senior manager of natural and organic sourcing at General Mills.

Robertson-Martin also notes that the company’s investment in the program is aimed at increasing the number of organic farmers in North America. “POGI is one way we’re ensuring the long-term sustainable supply of these ingredients,” she says.

General Mills says it is the fourth-largest U.S. natural and organic food producer and among the top five organic ingredient purchasers in the North American packaged foods sector. Its organic brands include: Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Food Should Taste Good, Immaculate_Baking, Lärabar, and Muir Glen.

Organic Vegetable Brand Sponsors Pinterest Contest

Josie's Organics, Braga Family Fresh foods, organic vegetables
Josie’s Organics Pinterest Contest (PRNewsFoto/Josie’s Organics)

SOLEDAD, CA It’s not to late to enter the fresh vegetable contest sponsored by Josie’s Organics and The Produce Mom. Veggie fans have until June 8 to answer the following question on Pinterest: “Who inspires you in the kitchen?”

For the folks behind  Josie’s Organics, their inspiration for the brand name came from the company’s namesake — Josie Braga, co-founder of Braga Fresh Family Farms, which is run today by her grandsons.

Josie Braga showed her love for her family with hearty meals three times a day, many with fresh vegetables she picked by hand on the Braga Home Ranch,” said Karen Nardozza, who heads marketing for Josie’s Organics. “Beyond family, she opened her home and invited everyone to stop by and have a home cooked meal—she loved to cook. Today’s hectic schedules put different challenges in front of modern women and mothers, but most of us were inspired to learn to cook by someone like Josie, and we want to hear those stories, see the photos and share those recipes from other fans of fresh, organic veggies.”

The Pinterest contest was launched to offer a forum to collect the stories, photos and recipes that demonstrate admiration of the influential cooks in the kitchens of today’s moms, the company says. It is a way to continue a common goal, shared with The Produce Mom, of educating consumers about living healthy by providing resources for them on social media platforms.

The grand prize winner will receive a prize pack including a Josie’s Organics apron, a set of three adorable blue polka dot bowls reminiscent of the Josie’s Organics blue polka dot packaging, a cookbook, “Root-to-Stalk Cooking: The Art of Using the Whole Vegetable” by Tara Duggan, a cutting board and a Josie’s Organics reusable cotton shopping bag.

“Food is culture,” said Lori Taylor, The Produce Mom. “One of my favorite things about the Josie’s Organics brand is the Braga family’s homage to their grandmother.  My grandma certainly inspired my passion for fresh food.  I’m so excited about this promotion.”