Former NBC News correspondent Laufer (Journalism/Oregon Univ.; The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey through the 51st State, 2013, etc.) investigates the “need to know what we’re eating and how it came to our dinner plates.”
The author became suspicious when a package of ostensibly organic walnuts from Trader Joe's tasted rancid. Checking the label, he found that they were grown in Kazakhstan. When Trader Joe's refused to reveal their provenance, his “journalist’s radar kicked in.” As someone who had reported on “the culture of bribery and corruption that lingers in most former Soviet republics,” Laufer found it unlikely that Kazakhstan was supporting a well-regulated organic food industry. Some months later, a check on the label of a can of “organic” black beans revealed that they came from Bolivia. As someone who had covered the drug trade in that region, Laufer was skeptical again. His suspicions were reinforced when an American case of fraudulent labeling made headlines: Businessman Harold Chase was convicted of passing off 4 million pounds of conventional corn as organic. In the United States, the organic sector has become a big business “worth over two dozen billion dollars a year.” At that size, it is “ripe with opportunities for hustlers,” and the certification process is flawed. Laufer interviewed the U.S. Department of Agriculture official in charge of the National Organic Program, who informed him that, due to understaffing, prosecutions are rare. For comparison purposes, the author traveled to Europe to speak with officials there and found a more regulated food industry, but loopholes and opportunities for fraud still abounded.
A lively, highly informative exposé capped by trips to Kazakhstan and Bolivia, where Laufer settles his questions about the walnuts and black beans he purchased. Now, how to fix the situation so that not all foods labeled organic are “suspect”?