Nov. 23, 2020

The History of Pesticides and Organic Food Fraud


Sarah gives us a shocking overview of the history of pesticides and the growth of the North American organic food movement. She also looks at the environmental and nutritional impacts of organic farming practices.

Becca then discusses what constitutes food fraud and the likelihood that you have been a victim of this crime. She does a deep dive into some issues of processing, marketing, and labeling - and how terms like the “Clean 15” are problematic. She tells the stories of two of the most recent and notorious instances of organic food fraud: the Canadian raspberry scam and the Field of Schemes involving grain in the United States.

For a full list of references, visit our website.

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References

Barach, P. (2016) The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed the World. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/the-mission/the-tragedy-of-fritz-haber-the-monster-who-fed-the-world-ec19a9834f74 

Brown, M. J. (2016) What is organic food and is it better than non-organic? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-organic-food#TOC_TITLE_HDR_8 

Canada Organic Trade Association. (2019). Quick facts about organic in Canada. Retrieved from https://canada-organic.ca/sites/default/files/2019_organic_quick_facts_-3.pdf 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009) Arsenic. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pdf/arsenic_factsheet.pdf 

Charlebois, S. (2020 Jun 16). Charlebois: Don’t be fooled by COVID-19 'food frauds'. Retrieved from https://leaderpost.com/opinion/columnists/charlebois-dont-be-fooled-by-covid-19-food-frauds 

CropLife Canada (2002). A History of Crop Protection and Pest Control in our Society. Retrieved from http://www.croplife.ca/english/pdf/Analyzing2003/T1History.pdf

Dalhousie University. (n.d.). ABOUT ORGANIC IN CANADA. Retrieved from https://www.dal.ca/faculty/agriculture/oacc/en-home/about/organic-canada.html#:~:text=According%20to%20Statistics%20Canada%2C%20in,for%201.8%25%20of%20total%20operations.&text=Organic%20foods%20now%20make%20up,week%20(COTA%2C%202013) 

Dangour, A. D., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. (2010). Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: A systematic review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(1), 203-210. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.29269

Food Safety Net Services. (2016). What is Food Fraud. Retrieved from http://fsns.com/news/what-is-food-fraud#:~:text=Food%20fraud%20is%20the%20act,or%20in%20the%20food's%20packaging. 

Government of Canada. (2020). Types of Food Fraud. Retrieved from https://www.inspection.gc.ca/food-safety-for-industry/information-for-consumers/food-safety-system/food-fraud/types-of-food-fraud/eng/1548444652094/1548444676109 

Harvard Health Letter (2015). Should you go organic? Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-go-organic 

Hughes, Michael F.; et al. (2011). "Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: A Historical Perspective". Toxicological Sciences. 123 (2): 305–332. doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfr184. PMC 3179678. PMID 21750349.

 Lowndes, S. (2013). Organic Agriculture. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/organic-agriculture#:~:text=Organic%20farming%20first%20emerged%20in,to%20lecture%20about%20biodynamic%20agriculture.

Meyer, M. (2011). An Everyday Poison. Science History Institute. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/an-everyday-poison 

Mondelaers, K., Aertsens, J., & Van Huylenbroeck, G. (2009). A meta‐analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming. British Food Journal, 111(10), 1098-1119. doi:10.1108/00070700910992925

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (2009). Introduction to Organic Farming. OMAFRA. Retrieved from http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/09-077.htm

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) (2020). Organic Agriculture in Ontario. OMAFRA. Retrieved from: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/organic/organic.html  

Organic Council of Ontario (2020) Background. Retrieved from https://www.organiccouncil.ca/organics/background/#:~:text=Organic%20farming%20is%20simply%20a,over%20millenia%20by%20our%20ancestors.&text=As%20momentum%20with%20the%20public,began%20springing%20up%20across%20Canada. 

Organic Trade Association. (2020). Organic Market Overview. Retrieved from https://ota.com/resources/market-analysis#:~:text=The%20U.S.%20organic%20sector%20posted,percent%20from%20the%20previous%20year. 

Pollan, M. (2006) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Random House. 

Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton. (2020, Oct 29). Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton’s Corporate Finance team is pleased to announce the successful sale of Alasko Foods Inc. to Groupe Commensal Inc. Retrieved from https://www.rcgt.com/en/on-the-move/company-aliments-alasko-acquisition-groupe-commensal/ 

Sherwood, D. (2020, Oct 6). Raspberry racket. Retrieved from https://graphics.reuters.com/CHILE-CRIME/RASPBERRIES/jbyvrmdkope/ 

The Kansas City Star. (2020, Jan 12). Missouri charmer led double life, masterminded one of the biggest frauds in farm history. Retrieved from https://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article239079858.html 

The Nobel Prize (n.d.) Fritz Haber. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/1918/haber/biographical/ 

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2017). Pesticides and Food: Healthy, Sensible Food Practices. EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/pesticides-and-food-healthy-sensible-food-practices 

Unsworth, J. (2010) History of Pesticide Use. International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Retrieved from http://agrochemicals.iupac.org/index.php?option=com_sobi2&sobi2Task=sobi2Details&catid=3&sobi2Id=31 

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2020, Oct 5). Strengthening Organic Enforcement Proposed Rule. Retrieved from https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/strengthening-organic-enforcement-proposed-rule 
 
U.S. Department of Justice. (2019, Aug 19). Field of Schemes Fraud Results in Over a Decade in Federal Prison for Leader of Largest Organic Fraud Case in U.S. History. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndia/pr/field-schemes-fraud-results-over-decade-federal-prison-leader-largest-organic-fraud 

Transcript

S: Welcome to Dietetics After Dark - your source for food-related crime, scandal, and fraud.

S: Welcome everyone, I’m Sarah...

R: ...and I’m Rebecca.

R & S: I want everyone to know that all the citations and relevant links for anything mentioned in this episode will be in the episode description and in our show notes at thenutritionjunky.com (that’s junky with a “Y”). Also, the information in this podcast is for entertainment and educational purposes only. If you’re interested in medical nutrition therapy or personalized nutrition advice, please talk to a doctor or registered dietitian in your area. This podcast may contain coarse language, mature subject matter and content of a violent or disturbing nature. Listener discretion is advised. 

What is organic food?

S: Ask - Becca, what’s organic food? According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, organic farming is a method of crop and livestock production that involves much more than choosing not to use pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, and growth hormones (even though it does include those things). It’s a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and health of the agro-ecosystem, including the soil, plants, livestock, and people. The main goal of organic agriculture is to use farming practices that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.

History of fertilizers

What’s interesting about organic farming is that it’s one of the
oldest aspects of human civilization as we know it and also a relatively new concept. For millennia, farmers relied on more natural forms of fertilizers and pesticides - which would have qualified as “organic” today. The earliest known use of a pesticide occurred 4500 years by Sumerians (Mesopotamia - Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, etc.) using sulphur compounds to control insects, and then 3200 years ago we see Chinese farmers using mercury and arsenic to control insects as well - these are all naturally occurring. There are also early records of farmers using odorous smoke - so they would set stinky things on fire (fish, crabs, manure) and direct the smoke over their fields in hopes that it would ward off insects and pests. Tar was used on trees to stop crawling insects, and weeds were weeded by hand. 

Modern synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use began in the 20th century. I’m going to start by telling you the story of Fritz Haber - the father of modern fertilization. Before synthetic fertilizers existed, crop production depended on the amount of nitrogen available in the soil. Nitrogen is everywhere, our atmosphere is 80% nitrogen, but it’s found naturally in it’s N2 form - which means that two molecules of Nitrogen are tightly bound together. Nature had a way around that though - There is bacteria living on the roots of legumes (peanuts, peas or alfalfa) that can fix Nitrogen - it’s actually called “Nitrogen fixing” bacteria which basically means that those bacteria take the N2 and split it and then bond it to 3 hydrogen molecules to get NH3 which is ammonia aka a wonderful fertilizer. So farmers would rotate legume plants into their crops to ensure the soil was healthy and there was enough Nitrogen. There is one other way that nature fixes Nitrogen- a bolt of lightning - which can actually break Nitrogen bonds in the air and release a light rain of nitrogen. 

So using legume plants and waiting for lightning were doing okay, but something a little more reliable could really elevate agriculture. That is where Fritz Haber’s story begins. 

Fritz Haber was a German chemist who invented the Haber-Bosch process (Bosch was his partner but all he did was industrialize the process years later, while Fritz Haber the brains behind the invention) and the Haber-Bosch process is a way of fixing Nitrogen and it is often considered one of the most important invention of the 20th century. 

By some estimates, 2 out of every 5 people on earth would not be alive without the Haber-Bosch process because this invention allowed farmers to improve crop fertilization and grow more food to feed the growing population. Without this invention, the world’s population would have ground to a halt, people would have starved, and billions of people would never have been born. Fritz Haber won the nobel peace prize in 1920 for “improving the standards of agriculture and well-being of mankind”. So, a hero, one might think! Let’s keep going. 

So the story doesn’t end there - Fritz and his chemical inventions were essential to Germany’s WWI efforts, and this Haber-Bosch process allowed Germany to continue to make bombs during WWI after Britain cut off Germany’s supply of synthetic nitrates. Some of his other work during WWI included the development of poisonous gases, one of which was eventually used in Hitler’s concentration camps in WWII. That gas was called Zyklon-B and it was a pesticide, and it’s estimated that 1.1 million people were killed using this method. 

Just take a moment to digest that - the same man who created an invention that is responsible for providing food to billions, is also the same man who invented a gas that killed over 1.1 million people in gas chambers. 

Fritz was quoted as saying ““In peace-time the scientist belongs to humanity, in war-time to his fatherland.” 

Fritz’s wife was a chemist as well, she was the love of his life, and she was strongly and vocally opposed to her husband's involvement in the war, and when Fritz Haber returned from WWI it only took a few days for his wife to use his army pistol and take her own life. Fritz Haber himself was a German Jew and he was exiled from German in 1934. 

** incredible article on Medium by a journalist named Paul Barach called The Tragedy of Fritz Haber: The Monster Who Fed the World

History of pesticides

Okay - moving on to pesticides. Arsenic was a commonly used pesticide, and it’s interesting because arsenic is naturally occurring - but it’s also incredibly toxic at high doses (Remember from last week - the dose makes the poison). At very low doses, our bodies can handle it just fine, but at higher doses it can be lethal.  

In the Middle Ages, arsenic was well known as a homicidal and suicidal agent, and it was involved in many high-profile murders. In fact, arsenic is often referred to as both the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings” because it was so effective and it was also used to remove members of the ruling class during the Middle Ages.

This is a bit of a tangent, but interesting nonetheless, Arsenic is odorless and tasteless, so it’s easy to hide in food or beverages. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include —nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and pain— so nothing that really stands out from other common illnesses, so basically it was the perfect medieval poison. And I think you’ll like this Becca, in the first trial that ever presented forensic evidence, was in France in 1840 when a woman named Mme Lafarge was sentenced to death after poisoning her husband with arsenic hidden in cakes, and one of her servants found traces of white powder, and it was “proven” in court to be arsenic, based on “appearance, texture, behavior in water, and garlic-like odor when burned”.

Although it was clearly known that arsenic could be toxic to humans, an arsenic-based pesticide called Paris Green was used until the year 1900 to control Colorado potato beetles and mosquitoes - and its use was widespread, it was the first pesticide to be dropped from airplanes over fields. Paris Green is considered the first (heavy quotes here) “successful” insecticide. And what’s interesting about it is that it was highly effective against insects and even rats, but it was also a beautiful emerald green pigment, and it became really trendy after Empress Eugenie wore a green dress so vibrant and breathtaking that it made headlines - dyed with Paris Green. It was used in clothing, paint, wallpaper, candy, paper, toys, medicine. There are plenty of mysterious illnesses and deaths from this time period in children (who have a lower tolerance for toxins) that it’s suspected are due to Paris Green.  But by 1960, arsenic-based pesticides were phased out after it was recognized that this was a major public health concern.

Another notable pesticide is DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). I’m just going to lightly touch on DDT - I think it could be its own episode but when DDT was introduced to the US in the 1940s, it seemed like a greatly positive advancement because food was cheaper and DDT actually reduced malaria rates so everything seemed great! But by 1946, the earliest case of DDT resistance was reported in a housefly and shortly after there were reports of harm in non-target plants and animals. PLUS in 1962 Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Springs came out, and it's about indiscriminate use of pesticides and their negative impacts on the environment and this book spurred widespread public pressure for increased regulation of pesticides. DDT was banned in 1972.

Organic food movement

Okay - so the increasing public awareness of pesticides and fertilizers coincided with the organic movement. Modern Organics in Canada and the US date back to the 1940s and 1950s. This is around the time that organic leaders began noticing dead birds and pollinators littering their farms after trying out pesticides. Around the same time, Organic advocate J.I. Rodale founded the Rodale Institute in the US and began publishing Organic Farming and Gardening in the 1940s - J.I. Rodale is the father of the organic movement. As awareness grew, consumers wanted organic food, and farmers and retailers wanted a way for consumers to discern between real organic food and fraudulent claims by business people wanting to take advantage of the movement, and so - the certification movement was born. Oganic certification standards were developed throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s at the grassroots level, and today, Canada and the US have federally legislated standards that products must achieve to use the certified organic label. In both Canada and the US, products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients to use the label.

Environmental Impact

So after all those stories, organic agriculture is looking pretty good right now - and remember, it’s not just pesticide and fertilizer use, it’s protect the environment and biodiversity, and relying on renewable resources - but the whole reason agriculture even start incorporating pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers is because the population was growing so rapidly that they needed higher yields. Organic agriculture has smaller yields.

There have been meta-analyses comparing different aspects of conventional and organic agriculture, and when it comes to environmental impacts and sustainability, there is actually no clear winner, in fact there is a lot of confusion. Organic agriculture typically produces better soil quality and greater biodiversity. However, conventional agriculture has some advantages over organic in terms of land use and yield - less land required to produce more food, which is important. We want our food to be affordable and plentiful so we can feed everyone on the planet. Estimates say that organic farming could require between 25-100% more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional. Plus, greenhouse gas emissions are about the same between organic and conventional agriculture when you factor in the manure used for fertilization - What do we know about cow farts? Methane. 

One thing that most experts agree on is that it’s not a question of one of the other, but instead, that a blend of both practices is probably best. Different areas of the world will benefit from different ratios of organic to conventional methods based on a variety of factors like ecosystem and need, and a combination of agricultural practices will likely work best. It’s also worth noting that if more money was pumped into organic farming and more research was done, that yield and land use gap could be closed. 

Nutrition Impact

Okay - I’m wrapping this up, I promise. Now, not everyone is purchasing organic for the environmental benefits alone. Many believe they are making the healthier choice! But are they? In a word - maybe. There is research that suggests organic food fares better nutritionally than conventional food - for example, organic tends to be higher in antioxidants, organically fed meat and dairy tends to have higher levels of omega-3.  BUT (and this is important) that doesn’t mean that conventionally produced food is not nutritious - it is absolutely nutritious. Organic food obviously has lower pesticide residues, considering it’s not produced with any, but pesticide residues on conventional produce are still well within safe limits. And these safe limits are set out by the Environmental Protection Agency based on a comprehensive risk assessment that includes careful examination of sensitive subpopulations (infants and children) and when the EPA determines their safety threshold, they use a 100-fold safety margin based on the “No Observed Adverse Effects Level”. Both the EPA and the USDA consistently find that 99.8% of foods are well below the safe levels, and nearly 50% have no residues at all. The bottom line is that there is no strong evidence that eating organic benefits our health significantly more than conventional foods. SO - if you want to buy organic - you do you! But if you don’t, that’s more than okay too - you can always just wash, peel, and trim, and (future dietitian message) the important thing is to eat more fruits and veggies - conventional or organic!  

Food fraud in general

R: Today we are going to talk about organic food fraud. As long as there has been food, there has been food fraud. For something that is SO longstanding and common, there are very few comprehensive resources when it comes to cases of organic food fraud. But there are A LOT of cases.

Before we get into it, I am going to give you a quick background on what the heck food fraud is and why you should be concerned. Then I will get into the cases and some relevant information to help prevent YOU from being a victim of organic food fraud. Because if you buy organic, you have likely, if not certainly, purchased fraudulent products at some point.

Food fraud is defined as purposely mislabeling, misrepresenting, substituting, altering or tampering with a food product at any point along the food chain. Food fraud can occur with the ingredients of a product, with the final product or with the packaging of the product.

Based on that definition and the Government of Canada website, food fraud can take many forms. And I am going to read you a little blurb on the government’s website about the different types of food fraud, as I am SURE this won’t be the last case we cover on this topic. The US defines food fraud in similar ways.

“Food may be intentionally misrepresented through:

  1. Substituting a product with something of a different character or quality. For example, using horse meat instead of beef, or using pollock as cod.
  2. Adulterating or diluting a product by mixing in other ingredients or elements and not declaring them on the label. For example, adding sugar syrup to honey, adding sunflower oil to olive oil, adding fillers to ground spices, or adding apple juice to pomegranate juice.
  3. Mislabelling a product as something it's not. For example, labelling farmed salmon as wild salmon, or labelling apples as organic when they aren't certified as such. It could also include intentionally providing a false net quantity declaration (such as when the amount of food in the package isn't accurately declared on the label).
  4. Making false claims or misleading statements to make the product appear to do something that hasn't been proven. For example, claiming a product is "preservative-free" when it contains preservatives, or is "sodium-free" when the thresholds aren't met. (Government of Canada, 2020).

Individuals or organizations may commit food fraud to intentionally cause harm to others, OR for financial gain (Food Safety Net Services, 2016). Adulterating food products is usually done for financial gain and I actually read somewhere that there is more money made in food fraud than in narcotics - PAUSE - when you think about the amount of money that goes into the food chain.

Food fraud also does tend to take place most with luxury or expensive items - so things like olive oil, maple syrup, honey, seafood, coffee or vanilla. And as the demand goes up for a certain product (for example, coconut oil), instances of food fraud increase. 

So there is a difference between food fraud and what is called intentional consumer confusion when it comes to food products. Intentional consumer confusion is exactly what it sounds like. It may mean misleading labels or marketing tactics (so, for instance, claiming that something is “detoxifying”), however, this confusion is not illegal per say. 

I think this ties in really well to what you were talking about last episode, where consumers tend to be afraid of the idea of having “chemicals” in their food. However, we live among chemicals. Almost everything that exists on this earth is made up of the known elements from the periodic table. Brands try to take advantage of this fear by claiming that their food products are detoxifying, natural, or that they use less chemicals, which can be extremely misleading. Any chemical - even H2O as we discussed last episode, can lead to intoxication. BUT this type of consumer confusion is exactly why we are talking about organics today. People are afraid of chemicals. Consumer awareness seems to be low on what constitutes organic food and criminals are taking advantage of the situation. 

Food fraud surrounding organic farming/marketing/labeling

Food fraud is often discussed based on the type of food that is being adulterated. But organic food fraud covers a VAST variety of products - from produce to packaged products - which is why it is so important to understand. It’s everywhere.

Now Sarah, I am sure you have seen influencers promoting organic produce or things like the “Clean 15”. - PAUSE - And I don’t know about you, but this type of promotion drives me absolutely bonkers. Not only is it a bit elitist, but sometimes I don’t even know if these individuals understand what they are promoting. So I do think that it is safe to say that “organic” is also a commonly used buzzword in the health food industry.

Remember what I said earlier - that as demand increases, opportunity for fraud also increases. And that is exactly the case with organic food. Between 2001 - 2011 the number of organic farms in Canada grew by 66%. In 2012, the organic food market was worth an estimated 3.7 billion dollars (Dalhousie University). It is now estimated that the Canadian market is valued at over 6.9 billion dollars (Canada Organic Trade Association, 2019). In the United States, in 2019, organic food market sales totalled 55.1 billion dollars (Organic Trade Association, 2020). So the demand is HIGH. But can farming land and practices adapt this quickly to meet the demand? 

Now I want to mention that I do love the idea of organic farming. A way of producing food that is more environmentally sustainable and that uses fewer pesticides - it sounds amazing. But one of the biggest issues is that it might not actually be more sustainable for the size of our global population.

And as you mentioned Sarah, organic produce yields smaller products. So when it comes to organic, you pay more for less. There is a price premium associated with these products, but more money also goes into the production of these products, so that makes sense. BUT the most common type of organic food fraud is when they simply sell non-organic products claiming that they are “organic”. With the amounts that people spend on this type of food, you can see how the benefits of this would add up insanely quickly for fraudsters.

I am going to tell you a few of the most recent and notorious stories regarding food fraud. Buckle up.

Raspberries (Canada)

This instance of food fraud hits close to home, as this is a Canadian scam that took place from 2014-2016. So early in 2017, an anonymous tip was made to Chilean Customs inspectors about a brand of raspberries that were leaving the country. The tip claimed that the batch going into Canada was under some sort of threat. Upon investigating this claim, they uncovered a food trading crime ring that extended across 3 continents. 

So what was happening was that non-organic raspberries grown in China were being shipped to Chile, then being repackaged and rebranded there by a brand called Frutti di Bosco. The issue was that they were rebranding these berries as a premium organic product grown in Chile, and reselling them at a premium price; EVEN though they were regular raspberries grown using unauthorized pesticides in China.

For the two years that these berries were being mislabeled and sold, Canada received about 12 million dollars worth of them. So if you bought organic raspberries between the year 2014-2016 you were likely a victim of this crime.

What’s even worse is that this Chinese supplier, called Harbin Gaotai Food Co Ltd, had a recall on their non-organic raspberries in Canada in 2016. There were 100’s of cases of the norovirus that were linked to their produce. But because the Chinese company was shipping their regular raspberries to Chile where they were being re-branded, Canadian authorities were unable to properly track and stop the consumption of these infected berries.

I just want to quickly give you a breakdown of what it is so that you can fully understand the disgusting repercussions of this crime. Norovirus is a super contagious virus where the most common symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. It is often called the “cruise-ship” virus since it is known to spread incredibly fast on cruise ships - simply because of how contagious it is and the close quarters. If we have learned anything from COVID-19 it is that viruses thrive on cruise ships. Here is the grossest part. Yes, it can be spread through contaminated food; BUT the way that it is most commonly transmitted is through HUMAN FECES.

SO just because your food isn’t covered in certain pesticides and herbicides doesn't mean that it isn’t covered in human feces.

Back to this nasty story - Apparently this raspberry scheme was incredibly easy to pull off since Canada and Chile have had trade pact since 1997 that allows the exporter to self-certify their own products. And the documents certifying the raspberries as organics were obviously found to be fake. 

According to the Frutti di Bosco owner, Cesar Ramirez, the company was in cahoots with a Canadian brand called Alasko Foods Inc, which is based in Montreal. Alasko specializes in frozen fruit products, and based on Ramierez’s account, Alasko had ordered, financed and supervised the repackaging of the Chinese berries in Chile. Alasko has denied all of these allegations.

In 2019, Cesar Ramirez pled guilty to two criminal counts of making false statements on export declarations. While the Chilean Customs recommended a fine of up to $55.6 million for the impact of mistrust on the Chilean fruit industry, Ramirez was given a six thousand two hundred and sixty six dollar fine and a suspended jail sentence of 122-days. 

Ramirez is now suing Alasko and a businessman who Ramirez claims was working on behalf of Alasko. As of October 6th of this year, this lawsuit is still pending. In March 6th of this year, Alasko put out a statement claiming that they no longer do business with Frutti di Bosco; but it looks like they had done so up until 2018. They said something else in this statement that irked me:

And Sarah I want to know your thoughts.

“It is the responsibility of the growers and packers to have the proper food safety and organic certifications, and to provide the associated documentation” required for shipments to Canada.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says that importers like Alasko play a key role in keeping consumers safe. They must ensure that the source of the food is from a reliable supplier and that the food meets all of Canada’s regulatory requirements; and I absolutely agree. I feel like it is a bit unfair to put the onus entirely on the growers and packers and to take none of the blame, whether or not they were directly involved in the scheme.

(Sherwood, 2020).

I did some more websleuthing around and found that on October 29th, so a few weeks ago, Alasko was acquired by a company called Groupe Commensal Inc. who specializes in food processing. I can’t help but think that there is some association between this scandal and the sale of the company (Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, 2020).

Grain (United States)

Now this next story is one of the biggest in American history. And it has to do with the sale of organic animal feed, in the form of grain.

This is also a more recent story, which was uncovered within the last two years. So you may have heard of this one in the news.

Anyways, this takes place on a farm in Chillicothe (CHILL-A-KOTH-E), Missouri. And this farm is owned by a man by the name of Randy Constant. Now Constant was known as a charming and big-hearted man. He was a church-goer, a school-board president and a father of three. One article said that he was the best thing to come out of their Missouri city since pre-cut bread loaves; and fun fact - Chillicothe is actually the home of pre-cut bread. An innovative baker came up with the idea in 1928 and the concept grew from there (The Kansas City Star, 2020).

Randy Constant’s farm primarily grew organic grain for animal feed, as I mentioned; more specifically for chickens and cattle. That livestock was then sold as organic meat or bi-products to make other organic products. He also raised tilapia, which he sold to many stores, including Whole Foods. In 2017 he was one of “10 Successful Farmers to Watch” in Successful Farming Magazine (The Kansas City Star, 2020). 

BUT this came to a screeching halt in 2018, when it was found that from 2010 to 2017, Constant’s feed was anything but organic. This meant that any of the livestock that consumed his products were not actually organic either. And that livestock farmers and thousands of consumers had been tricked into purchasing these products at a premium price. 

He misled an large number of people with this scheme, admitting to over $142 MILLION in grain sales. These sales made up for 7% of all organic corn and 8% of all organic soybeans grown in the US. So this was HUGE.

Now, you might be wondering how he spent this money, and let me tell you. He took his family on many elaborate trips, paying for dozens of family members to go. Then starting in 2010, Constant made over 20 trips to Las Vegas where he would hire escorts and gamble. Now, there is nothing wrong with hiring an escort, but this man clearly had some addiction issues that were not addressed. He paid over a quarter million dollars to two of the three escorts with whom he had relationships with over a 7-year period. He spent another 360 thousand dollars on other related Vegas expenses over the 20 trips that he took. Some of which went towards the travel, car expenses and breast augmentation surgery for one of his escorts. As a married family man, he wasn’t making the best decisions.

Constant was eventually caught and admitted to misleading customers by telling them that his fields in Nebraska and Missouri were organic, when they were in fact sprayed with unauthorized chemicals or they were mixed with non-organic grain. 

Now one man could not physically run a scheme of this size alone, and he didn’t. There were three other farmers from Overton, Nebraska who supplied some of the non-organic grain to Constant knowing that he was re-selling it as organic. Over the 7 years, they received over 10 million dollars in the scheme.

All three of the men were sentenced to federal prison following a guilty plea for wire fraud. Mike Potter, aged 42, was sentenced to two years; James Brennan, aged 41, was sentenced to 20 months, and Tom Brennan, aged 71, was only sentenced to three months, since the judge claimed he was a war hero for this time spent in Vietnam. Each of the three men had to also forfeit $1 million from their crimes.

Thoughts? They likely made over $3 million dollars each. And the highest sentence between the three was only two years. That’s one mil/year that they spend in prison. Makes it seem almost worth it to get into organic food fraud.

In December 2018, Constant pled guilty to one count of wire fraud. And in August 2019, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was ordered to forfeit $128 million dollars from the crimes and the judge stated that he had caused incalculable damage (US Department of Justice, 2019).

Now this story gets a bit sad. Three days after his August 2019 sentencing and a few days before his 61st birthday, he was found dead in his garage from carbon monoxide poisoning. PAUSE. Many people thought that his sentence was too tough, and he had over 70 character references that were given to the judge to attest to his good character. But, unfortunately, it seems like the judge was trying to make an example out of this scenario. And honestly, how else are you going to prevent this type of fraud from happening at this scale? It is just an unfortunate end to such a wild story. (The Kansas City Star, 2020)

This instance of food fraud was ultimately deemed the Field of Schemes.

The issue

Now I just want to touch on WHY organic food fraud is such a big issue. While, in the general sense, this may seem like a victimless crime, there are many unintended consequences of this type of crime. 

For instance, the consumption of pesticides. Whether or not organic chemicals are any better, I don’t know. But it is essentially causing the consumer to eat something that they are purposely avoiding.

Then there are tracking issues, as with the Canadian norovirus cases. 

It also undercuts the legitimate organic farmers and can potentially undermine the organic certification as a whole.

But the biggest issue lies with the consumer. Since this food is deemed as being “healthier” or more “wholesome” then its regularly produced counterparts, many families across North America are be saving and spending their money on these products thinking that they are better for the environment and the health of their families. When a lot of the times they are not. 

Food Fraud & COVID

Just as food fraud tends to increase as demand increases for a product, it also has a tendency to increase during periods of recession. With more people making food at home with COVID-19 organic food sales have actually increased. Food fraudsters might be looking to take shortcuts due to these increases in sales; or to turn a blind eye to things that might be happening within their company. The COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed down food audits in Canada, which may act as an invitation to criminals to commit fraud (Charlebois, 2020). 

Now of course, as we discussed, this is a bigger issue than just consumer trickery. And the food industry as a whole does not take it lightly. In October of this year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed new organic food regulations focusing on the production, handling and sales of organic agricultural products. These will include import and other certifications, new record-keeping policies and unannounced inspections. Since we, in Canada, do receive a lot of our organic produce from the US, I am assuming that this will benefit us as well. 

With that being said, if you ARE buying organic, it is very important to be a conscious consumer. Consumer awareness forces the industry to be better. SO I have put together a few tips for the conscious organic food consumer…

Tips: 

  • Wash your fruits and vegetables
  • Check the label and know the lingo - For instance:
    • Look for 3rd party compliance or 3rd party organic standards
    • We could spend another hour talking about organic food lingo. But once big one is that if it says “organic ingredients”, it quite literally means that some of the ingredients are organic. BUT not the whole product
  • Pick your retailers carefully - talk to the owners of the markets and local grocers that you visit
  • Report concerns to your country’s food inspection agency. That is the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Canada.
  • Question the price - it it seems too low, there is likely a reason
  • Lastly, you could always just buy regular non-organic produce. When it gets down to it there seems to be very little difference between the nutritional value. It may not necessarily be better for the environment. And it will cost you a premium for as long as you consume it.

To finish this segment, I will say it again - consumer awareness forces the industry to be better. Knowledge is power. So understand what you are eating or what you are promoting to others. It’s important.

R: Thanks for listening to this episode of Dietetics After Dark. You can find all the references and materials used to put this podcast together in our show notes at thenutritionjunky.com/dieteticsafterdark. 

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For more information, follow us on Instagram at @DieteticsAfterDark. If you have an idea for an episode or segment, email us at dieteticsafterdark@gmail.com

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