NerdWallet Investigation

The Dirt on 'Organic' Food: You May Be Paying for Fakes

U.S. shoppers are cheated at the cash register and never even know it. Food fraudulently certified as organic — and priced up accordingly — can make its way to grocers’ shelves, thanks to a broken enforcement process at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Dirt on 'Organic' Food: You May Be Paying for Fakes

U.S. shoppers are cheated at the cash register and never even know it. Food fraudulently certified as organic — and priced up accordingly — can make its way to grocers’ shelves, thanks to a broken enforcement process at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows producers to hand-pick and pay the certifiers responsible for verifying that food meets organic standards. When fraud is alleged, the USDA’s under-resourced staff fails to investigate or act. The conflicted system unfolds in the verdant fields of a Central American pineapple farm.

Shoppers can’t always trust the USDA’s “organic” label. But with a little effort, consumers can improve the likelihood of buying genuinely organic products while continuing to support organic farming.

An exporter confessed to falsely labeling 400,000 pineapples as organic, thus commanding a higher price. The USDA, charged with ensuring the validity of the organic label, never prosecuted.

A Costa Rican agrochemist who documented fraud affecting U.S. consumers has been attacked by the companies whose actions he exposed and subjected to discipline by his government.

The USDA’s system of verifying that foods are organic is riddled with flaws, shortcomings and conflicts of interest, a NerdWallet investigation has found.

‘Organic’ Pineapples Reach U.S. Stores

Del Valle Verde Corp. shipped organic-labeled pineapples from Pital, Costa Rica, to U.S. chains such as Safeway, Ralphs, Fred Meyer and HEB in cities including Miami, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, among others. A Costa Rican government investigator found that certifiers appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture incorrectly approved Valle Verde as organic. The USDA left the investigation of the alleged fraud to the certifying companies, which ultimately found nothing wrong. Customs records tracking the organic-labeled pineapple shipments since 2015 show that Valle Verde has grossed more than $6 million — about twice what the company would have received for conventional fruit.

Sources: U.S. and Costa Rica Customs; Costa Rica State Phytosanitary Service; USDA public records

Before you spend a lot on organic-labeled produce, you can ask these four questions at the farmers market to learn more about its origins.

Reporting and photography: Richard Read.
Contributing reporters: Kelsey Sheehy, Alex Richards, Valerie Lai, Melissa Lambarena. Interpreter: Jessica Manley Fredrich.
Editor: Drexel Heikes. Copy editors: Mary Makarushka, Carolyn Kimball.
Design: Danielle Pignatelli, Carrie Chilton. Project managers: Heather Yamada-Hosley, Jake Carroll.