MINNEAPOLIS — For years, American farmers’ battle against fake organic grain imports has centered on Eastern Europe. Now, an organic farm in South America is being scrutinized.
A lengthy complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and obtained by the Star Tribune, alleges fraud at an organic grain company in Argentina that exports millions of bushels of organic corn and soybeans to the United States each year.
The complaint says that Rivara SA deliberately used prohibited fertilizers and herbicides to produce grain that it then passed off as organic to U.S. customers, including the largest U.S. producer of organic chickens.
The 115-page complaint against Rivara is painstakingly detailed, and raises concerns in a global supply chain — organic grain — that has been rife with problems as the market for organic poultry, eggs and milk in the United States has quickly outpaced the supply of domestic corn and soybeans to feed those animals.
Officials at the USDA’s National Organic Program would not confirm receipt of the complaint nor say whether an investigation is underway. Matthew Haverstick, a lawyer at Kleinbard LLC in Philadelphia, told the Star Tribune he filed the complaint last December.
The president of Rivara SA, Fernando Rivara, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that the accusations are “false” and that his company has cooperated with the USDA’s investigation.
Haverstick said it’s been “a while” since he heard anything from the NOP. “I don’t know what the status of the investigation is, but the last I heard it was ongoing,” he said.
It has taken the NOP — a 40-person organization still coming to terms with the scope of the global organic supply chain — several months or even more than a year to formally conclude an investigation.
The complaint relies on recorded conversations with a key employee of Rivara, who indicates that the farm “knowingly sells products that do not meet the standards” for certification with the NOP.
It also said Rivara intentionally misled NOP regulators and consumers by claiming its products are organic even though they are “produced with prohibited substances and practices.”
The complaint represents a new front in the efforts by farmers to spot grain they suspect is fraudulent. Turkish companies ship the vast majority of the organic grain imported by U.S. companies and, as a result, are most closely watched for signs of fraud. One Turkish company stopped importing grain after a Washington Post article in 2017 showed it was passing off conventional grain as organic and selling it into the U.S.
Another Turkish company called Tiryaki, the largest supplier of organic grain into the U.S., was certified by an agency, Control Union, that lost its accreditation from both the European Union and the United States in the span of 45 days this spring. Tiryaki continued to import grain and is still listed as “transitioning to a new certifier” by the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database.
A farmer from Missouri pleaded guilty in federal court in Iowa to defrauding customers by selling them more than $140 million in fake organic grain over several years. That case is ongoing and none of the buyers have been identified.
The USDA says it is working hard to ensure that organic grain coming into the country is truly organic, but many in the industry are skeptical.
Dave Chapman, executive director of the Real Organic Project, an effort to come up with an alternative organic label, said masses of American consumers have been misled by organic products in grocery stores.
“They always promise that change is coming, and change never comes. The truth is the only way that they ever do act at all is when there’s tremendous public pressure,” Chapman said. “It behooves us to make a ruckus.”