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Prof. Peter Laufer Traces “Organic” Products Back to the Farm

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Peter Laufer’s new book Organic explores the huge growth in food products labeled “organic”, in part by tracking a bag of walnuts from Kazhakhstan and a can of black beans from Bolivia.  He details the USDA’s “promotion” or organic products, with limited enforcement of standards and labeling requirements.

Laufer holds the James Wallace Chair at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.  A veteran radio reporter, talk show host and print journalist, he is the author of many books, get full info here.  The full title of the new book is Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling.

Our conversation opens about my recent visit to Eugene and Portland, where PBC led some workshops about podcasting, enabling some new voices to join the podcast fun.

Laufer’s book starts in his own kitchen, where he and wife Sheila discover a bag of “organic” walnuts purchased at Trader Joe’s has gone rancid.  As he returned the defective merchandise, he noted the package stated the walnuts were grown in Kazakhstan.  From his earlier travels covering the collapse of the Soviet Union, Laufer was skeptical that anything grown in Kazakhstan could be truly organic.  Scrutinizing a can of organic black beans purchased at a local natural food store, he noted they were produced in Bolivia.

As he traced the origins of these food products, he encountered a stone wall at Trader Joe’s, which told him that the source of the Kazakh walnuts was a “trade secret”.  Laufer details the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, which is intended to promote domestic and foreign sales of American organic products, and has limited enforcement capabilities.  After filing a formal protest, USDA concedes to Laufer that the walnuts from Kazakhstan were not organic, with no consequences for Trader Joe’s false representation on the label.

The book explores the difference between USDA organic standards and those in Europe, and finds that claims of American superiority are dubious.  Laufer tells us that the leading organic certifying agency, Quality Assurance International, is funded by the producers; this leads to an escalating exchange about the credibility of self-regulation.

Laufer recounts his meeting in Bolivia with Pedro Carayuri, a legitimate organic farmer who imparts a powerful message to American consumers, especially those who prefer organic foods.