Organic food group pushes for better labeling

Mitch Blumenthal thinks more needs to be done to ensure that organic foods are properly handled and labeled.

That’s why the owner of Global Organics, an organic foods wholesaler in Sarasota, supports a letter sent to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture by a nonprofit group asking for better oversight of organic food handling and labeling.

The letter from the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute urged the president and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to take “a very strong and proactive posture in turning around management at the National Organic Program,” run by the USDA.

The organization cited the $20 billion-a–year organic foods industry that is increasingly being joined by large corporations that the Cornucopia Institute maintains don’t always uphold federal organic production standards.

Mark Kastel, spokesman for the Cornucopia Institute, said the organization has heard concerns from several thousand farmers who support the initiative and have signed proxy letters to make their concerns known.

“So there is consensus there that something needs to be addressed,” Kastel said. “Our concern is that the USDA is not adequately enforcing the regulations. The vast majority of everyone in this industry is doing it right. There isn’t a widespread problem, but there’s a few bad actors that aggressively need to be reined in.”

An official with the USDA said the agency does not comment on press releases.

Blumenthal, whose 24,000-square-foot facility near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport serves groceries and restaurants throughout the south with 14 tractor-trailers and 70 employees, says he often encounters produce on store shelves that is labeled or organic but is being mishandled.

By law, organic produce is not allowed to be commingled with non-organic produce because of the potential of coming into contact with pesticide residues.

Organic foods are supposed to be pesticide-free and consumers often pay 50 percent or more for the average organic food product in exchange for that guarantee.

“I see a lot of (violations) on the shelves. I’m always looking,” Blumenthal said. “I don’t think what I’m seeing is deliberate errors, but what I see are sloppy errors. There’s commingling of organic and nonorganic products. It’s just lack of education on the part of staff. They just don’t know what they’re doing.

“I’ve seen conventionally grown fennel that’s sort of laid on top of organically grown cabbage well in effect that organically grown cabbage.”

Norm Whitlow, owner of Green’s on the Gro Inc. Farm, which sells hydroponic fruits and vegetables locally, also has concerns about the quality of foods labeled organic, particularly those coming from other countries.

“The stuff that comes in from other countries is supposed to be organic,” Whitlow said. “I think once it gets packaged and gets on a vehicle to make its way here, it’s non-organic, because it takes too long to get here,” Whitlow said. “Their farms should be certified just like ours are, by some American certifier.”