Organic labels: fact or fiction?

Submitted photo "Organic" by Peter Laufer.

“My first experience with organic was with my wallet,” said Peter Laufer. “I watched my grocery bill double.”

Laufer, the James Wallace Chair of Journalism — and my former professor — at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, was visiting the Seaside Public Library to speak about his book, “Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling.”

In the U.S., organic food sales are at $30 billion a year and growing. Price and profit, however, were only one aspect of Laufer’s talk.

In his book, Laufer said, he sets out to trace the origin of two items in his kitchen that bear organic labels: Trader Joe’s walnuts — a product of Kazakhstan (a fact that had many in the audience shaking their heads in disbelief) — and Market of Choice black beans, a product of Bolivia. The countries of origin were Laufer’s first red flag.

“We’re in Eugene, Oregon, the capital of touchy-feely organic food, and there’s walnuts from Kazakhstan and black beans from Bolivia being sold to me?” he said. When it comes to corruption, Kazakhstan takes the cake. “There is no organic sector in Kazakhstan. Zero. Zip,” Laufer said.

As a consumer, a journalist and a university researcher, he knocked on the doors of Trader Joe’s, Market of Choice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and third-party organic certifier Quality Assurance International, the goal being to connect with the actual farmers and learn whether those organic labels were telling the truth. The response he got: a lot of doors slammed in his face.

A Freedom of Information Act request eventually produced paperwork — but contained page after page of redacted, blacked-out information.

The underlying message Laufer received was, “It’s none of your business where the food you’re buying is coming from.” This is problematic, Laufer said. You should be able to know the history of what you’re putting in your gut.

“The secrecy, to me, is troubling,” Laufer said. “If there’s transparency, then we as consumers can make informed decisions.”

Ultimately, when food is globally sourced, there are too many opportunities for error, he said. “To think that if it’s got that sticker on it, it’s got validity, that — I think the academic term — is hogwash.”

Laufer’s solution: Don’t take all organic labels at face value. Be smart. Get to know your grocer, and ask questions. Buy local when you can; visit farmers markets.

I won’t spoil the ending of his adventure (or the book), but Laufer did make it to Bolivia, and he did meet a bean farmer.

Traveling to Bolivia for “Organic” wasn’t new; Laufer is no stranger to foreign countries. He’s taught and worked around the world. For his book “The Dangerous World of Butterflies,” he traveled through Nicaragua. This summer he’ll teach in Vienna. This week he and some UO journalism students are in Latvia for World Press Freedom Day, a worldwide celebration led by UNESCO.

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