Peter Laufer, Truth behind Food Labeling
Peter Laufer, winner of major awards for excellence in reporting, is an independent journalist, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker working in traditional and new media. He is the James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s time for It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me today. I just wanted to jump right in and get started because we have a very important guest and a great topic that we’re going to be covering today. My guest is Peter Laufer, winner of major awards for excellence in reporting. He’s an independent journalist, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker working in traditional and new media. He is the James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication and he’s written many wonderful books. Thanks for joining me on It’s All About Food.
Peter Laufer: Oh it’s terrific to be here with you, thanks for the opportunity.
Caryn Hartglass: I know that you’re very busy and you’re busy doing some incredible work, maybe we will hear more about what you are up to right now, but right now I want to talk about your book, Truth Behind Food Labeling. When I went to look at the book and to get you on the show to talk about it, I really didn’t know too much about what it was about. I finished reading it and I was very moved, excited and scared. Lots of different emotions but I’m glad somebody is talking about it.
Peter Laufer: Well it seems like it is necessarily to talk about what veracity it is regarding the label that we see more and more organic on food. That’s why I felt compelled to look into it and to write the book Organic. It’s an amazing change in the last generation or so where the amount of money that we spend in just America on groceries marked organic has sky rocketed from about $2 billion dollars a year to this year’s $30 billion dollars. That’s already a couple of more billion since the book was first published last year. So wherever there’s that kind of growth, the potential exists for sloppiness and worse. That’s what I found researching the book.
Caryn Hartglass: Now this increase in the market, I think it reflects a lot of different things but I know from my point of view, I want to buy organic because I like to think I’m educated. I have a background in chemical engineering. I know what toxic pesticides and herbicides are doing to our soil, to our water, to our food and to all life on earth. I don’t want to consume those residues, I don’t want them poisoning the planet and I want to go for food the way it was intended.
Peter Laufer: Well I think that you and I will find nothing to argue about there. I agree with those sentiments and I think so many people don’t bother to think twice about what it is they are eating. The motivation behind the book was not to question the validity or value of choosing to eat the matter you described but rather to get a sense of the labeling. When we pick that box off the shelf in the supermarket because it says organic on it because we are thinking as you are, what does that mean? Are we getting what we expect we are getting because it says organic?
Caryn Hartglass: Well most of us today, since we don’t grow our own food and we don’t live near someone who is growing the food so that we can see how it’s done. Most of us, when we get food, either when we buy it in the supermarket or when we eat it in a restaurant, it’s a leap of faith, really.
Peter Laufer: It’s absolutely a leap of faith but it’s really more than that, or should be, for those of us who are lucky enough to live in a country like this one where we are operating via rules. So there is the leap of faith and as you say, a lot of us – most of us can’t not only grow our own food stocks inadequate supply to take care of ourselves. We may live in a climate where it’s not possible to do that year round but in addition to that, we are engaged in other activities. So when we decided to buy something and it has a certain label on it, we should have an expectation and the confidence that it is what it says it is.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes we should. We like to think we’re civilized but a lot of things can go wrong as you show in your book. So you’re books are thought as a journey to find out about two particular products that you purchase. One is a bag of rancid walnuts and the other is a can of beans that are labeled organic. You wonder how they got to your shelves and if they’re really from where they say they’re from and you end up traveling the world to learn more about organic certification and where those foods and other foods come from.
Peter Laufer: Well because we are this nation of laws, then we have regulations and if a product says USDA organic on it, that’s supposed to mean that it meets certain standards that the government sets that we all endorse because the government is us and that we should have a sense of confidence in that. When I looked at the labels on those two products that you cite that I deal with in the book, they indicated that the beans came from Bolivia and the nuts came from Kazakhstan. Well those are two of the most corrupt places on earth. There’s nothing to say about it other than that regarding both government and business. So it immediately made me skeptical and I thought that would be a good way to enter into this world and get a sense of how much we can trust the labels.
Caryn Hartglass: So just from a story point of view, you travelled to Austria, to Italy, to Costa Rica, to Tunisia, to Bolivia and there were wonderful stories and the individuals that you connect with. We love stories about food and reading about good food and eating good food, but there’s a lot more to it. Learning about the different countries processes for certifying and verifying organic, and everywhere you went there seemed to be a lot of holes.
Peter Laufer: Well especially right here at home. The concern that I have after doing the research and after being able to enjoy the adventures, is very basic as your listeners or many of them may know, when you look at the label of something that’s labeled organic, there is a citation of the third party certifier that is supposed to give you the confidence because they handled the inspections that the product is in fact organic. Well the initial worry that we all should have, I believe, is the way the system is setup. These third party certifiers, for the most part, are for-profit companies and they are in competition with each other seeing contracts with the companies they’re certifying and then here is where the conflicts of interest or the potential for them really need to be spotlighted. These companies are paid for that service by the very places that they are certifying. So the opportunity for some wink-wink, nod-nod, some outright grab, or sloppiness is real.
Caryn Hartglass: I know that some of the reactions when people hear this is why should I bother buying organic if I can’t be certain that it is organic? Another reaction is for those farms that may or may not be certified organic that are organic, why should or shouldn’t they be certified if the process is so rot with problems?
Peter Laufer: Well I’m not sure how rot it is with problems as much as it is with potential problems and that’s where the citation of the $2 billion to $30 billion is worth noting. When something is growing that fast, then the opportunity to perhaps not go by the book or just to mess up increases, it has to. When the environment changes, when your local down at the corner, mom and pop leftover from the late ‘60s organic natural food grocery store gets replaced by Costco and Wal-Mart, and Costco and Wal-Mart are the two biggest retailers of organic in America today, no matter what you may think about Whole Foods. When that starts to happen in an environment where to be gracious sloppiness and to be cynical graphed is likely, then there is a cause for concern.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and I’m wondering what to do about it. But let’s jump to some of the countries that you visited because I really love some of the stories that came out of it. One of them really had me rolling when I read about you being in Tunisia and you visited an olive farmer who invited you to dinner. I’m a vegan and many of my listeners are very plant based and you explained that you didn’t eat meat and it was like right out of the Greek wedding movie with Andrea Martin when she says “what, you don’t eat meat? That’s okay, I’ll make lamb”.
Peter Laufer: It was really great. When I said I don’t eat meat and he said “we will eat couscous with no meat” and I said to him that sounds great because I love couscous and he said “we will eat couscous with no meat, we will eat couscous with sheep”.
Caryn Hartglass: That really does happen.
Peter Laufer: It really did happen but he was a very gracious host and when I suggested that sheep are in fact meat, he had his chef cook up just a gorgeous bounty with the most lovely vegetables imaginable. It was terrific to be in a third world environment because I am showcasing problems in Kazakhstan and Bolivia to third world countries. I know for some people that designation is politically incorrect but it really is third world. I would hazard a guess that a lot of people that don’t want to hear the word third world haven’t been to a third world or if I may, as the writer Paul Theroux calls it the turd world. But I wanted to make sure that I can do everything that I could to make this as balanced a proposition as possible and that’s why I was so pleased to go to Tunisia to see this spectacular farm where the most gorgeous produce was grown and this exquisite olive oil was created by this fellow who really is a poet of food, just a wonderful man.
Caryn Hartglass: I was in Tunisia once and the thing that struck me the most was where I was. It was very poor and I was struck by the low quality of all of the buildings that the people were living in but there were Clementine trees everywhere, ripe with all this luscious fruit. I kept thinking this place is so rich and they don’t even realize what wealth they have.
Peter Laufer: I’m not sure that they don’t realize it but one thing that made me realize when being there and also living in Oregon and California is that those of us in these climates are lucky enough to be able to pick and choose and have the opportunity to, if not know the growers, at least have confidence often in the retailers knowing the growers. But if you’re in the northern tier of this country, if you’re up in the Duluth or the upper peninsula of Michigan where it seems like it’s winter every month except July, the environments is different and that’s when the truth really is needed. If the produce is being flown in from Chili and Mexico, aside from whatever concerns you may have about the appropriateness use of using natural resources so that you can whimsically eat raspberries in the winter. But when it’s coming from a distance like that, then the importance of the validity of the label really becomes consequential. If you can’t trust the label, then it’s meaningless.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you talked about a number of large organizations, Trader Joe’s for one and then some government organizations, the USDA. They’re all so large that things very easily get lost and there’s I think many people, maybe they’re not incompetent but they just don’t want to go the lengths to really get the information that people want, then you are asking them all…
Peter Laufer: It’s more insidious than that, if I may interrupt, excuse me.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes please.
Peter Laufer: As I try to make clear in the book, with Trader Joe’s, there is this bizarre dichotomy. You go into the place and the rock and roll music is on the box there and you’re dancing around the isles and they have all this great stuff like the popcorn made with olive oil and the bargain wines. But that seeming openness and embracement of the consumer is a charade. It is one of the most closed companies in terms of offering information about where it sources its products as is imaginable. Trader Joe’s is not only not transport, it’s not translucent, it’s opaque. You cannot see beyond that 1960s rock and roll music and the guys and gals and their flowering Hawaiian shirts. As I make clear in the book, the company is owned holy by Aldi which is a Germany based discount supermarket chain along the lines of Costco and the holding company also is also closed doors. If you want to learn more, then just the glib copy that’s up on the blackboards there at trader Joe’s or on their labels about where the products came from, the door will be slammed in your face just as it was in mine.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you think they always were this evil or did they get so large and powerful that it just corrupted them like how it usually does?
Peter Laufer: I’m not sure if evil is the right word but certainly closed and yes, it is their corporate culture and it has been since the beginning. The company is built on proprietary secrets and not informing the public and in the case of the walnuts, misinforming the public.
Caryn Hartglass: Well it can be downright dangerous. I know personally because I have a relative with celiac disease and when her mom repeatedly asked Trader Joe’s about where products came from, the door was definitely closed so she can’t buy food there.
Peter Laufer: And there’s no reason, I would hope, that one would want to buy anything from a place that isn’t telling you where they got it, whether it be the hardware store or food store. But particularly when it’s the food store and this is what you are eating for your health and happiness, then it’s absurd for us to be told that it’s none of our business where stuff come with.
Caryn Hartglass: So what should we be doing with regards to Trader Joe’s? Should we not be buying there or should we be writing them a lot of letters or both?
Peter Laufer: I don’t think Trader Joe’s could care less how many letters you or I or all your listeners combined write to them. They’re a phenomenally successful company, this is their business plan and I can’t imagine that they’re going to change. What to do about shopping there? Who knows? The stuff is a bargain. There’s some really tasty stuff there and it’s actually kind of fun to go into the store, usually when it’s not too crowded. Probably most of the stuff is what it says it is. I certainly have a hard time shopping there since I did this investigation.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Well before your book, I started to have some painted feelings about things that are going on now and now they’re even more tainted. But fortunately, I have choices. Not everyone has choices but a lot of us do and I personally want to support companies that I believe in, I believe in their mission and I believe in the quality of their product and we need truth behind labeling to find out who those companies are.
Peter Laufer: And some of us are, as you said, lucky enough to be in the position to make these kinds of choices. There’s a Trader Joe’s about 2 miles from where I’m sitting right now and we’re in California and 2 blocks away there’s a locally owned food emporium that is just magnificent. The size of a typical kind of Whole Foods place but completely locally owned. Every piece of produce in there is labeled with the name of the farm and the mileage from the store to the farm and if there’s some question about the origin of the food, for example, they sell meat there and so the beef will be labeled grass fed only if it’s on pasteur land where there are no weeds. They are extraordinarily precise and it doesn’t hurt their business at all. This place is open from 8 in the morning until 8 at night or something like that and it is jammed day and night. It’s a phenomenal success and I think that’s an indicator of how people like you and your listeners will respond with their pocketbooks if you’re getting what you want. It’s a little pricier over there but most of us go there to support it and because it is giving us what we seek.
Caryn Hartglass: Well in today’s world, we definitely have the technology that can trace every food and every ingredient that’s in a box. You mention in your book that in Austria there were some companies that have food that you can trace back to where they came from. I’m thinking about the courier companies we can trace. Packages and where they came from and where they stopped along the way, we just need some slick coders and we can know where everything came from which we do to some extent, like at that one store you mentioned and I remember when mad cow disease came out there was more focus on determining where meat came from. With so much food borne illness going on today, it could be beneficial to have that traceability and that’s something we should have on all food at this point.
Peter Laufer: Yes, except in the environment that we have and the type capitalism we practice the regulatory agency in question which is the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture; the National Organic Program, the NOP, is serving business at least as much as it’s servicing the rest of us and maybe more and it’s the position of the USDA that if companies like Trader Joe’s or others decide that the origin of their products is a proprietary business tool, then they are successfully able to hide behind that claim and not tell you where something you’re going to buy and eat came from.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and we see that especially with animal agriculture. They may not use the word proprietary but things are secret and the companies that are raising animals in confinement don’t want you to see what they are doing inside. Lots of secrets, too many.
Peter Laufer: Too many secrets exactly and it seems as if there is some activism to be engaged in, this is in place to focus energy and that is to foment a movement toward transparency so that something as simple and straight forward as knowing for sure where what you’re eating came from and under what conditions it was grown or otherwise developed and processed. That seems as if it should be a basic right in a society such as ours and that the business interest of the companies involved regarding the origin should be secondary to our interests as consumers knowing what it is we are eating and where it came from.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you’re interested in organic food and I’m interested in organic food. It’s a small portion of the food market and I’m imagining that the – I hate using the word conventional food because it’s not conventional but industrial food, that isn’t organic – I’m imaging that it’s worse when it comes to transparency.
Peter Laufer: Yes I think that you’re probably correct because as the proponents of the National Organic Program like to remind me, the reality is that there is a lot of regulation at work and if you trust the players along the way, then there is more attention to how the organic products are brought to market then the so called conventional products. That is true but even that is a bit twisted. Isn’t it strange how it is that we certify supposedly and mark organic food but if your spraying it with something that maybe you don’t want to eat, there is no skull and cross bones on the box of so called conventional food.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, that’s the craziest thing out there but I guess it comes from when the whole pesticide, herbicide movement began after WWII, we really believed in better living with chemistry.
Peter Laufer: Some of us, yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Some of us. I went to work for DuPont my first job out of college. I believed.
Peter Laufer: That’s quite a turn around that you made.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. I don’t believe anymore. Chemicals are important, we are made of chemicals but there are good chemicals and bad chemicals. When we use them to destroy the life around the stuff we’re growing, we’re destroying a lot more than what we intend to. That’s the damage with pesticides and herbicides today. Another thing that scared me in your book, there are different shades of organic.
Peter Laufer: Well there certainly are different definitions and there are compounds that are permissible under the National Organic Program policies that are not so called organic and can be in something with the USDA organic label on it. The decisions about that are made with heavy influence from industry.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t remember in the book if this happened in the United States or not but I imagine it can that there are some distributors that are aware of the 95% rule and will knowingly add a little bit of conventional product in with the organic to make more money.
Peter Laufer: Well they’re knowingly probably but more than that if again the potential is for sloppiness if the company is 50% conventional and 50% organic or more likely 90% conventional and 10% organic, just trying to take advantage of some of the opportunity out there to make some more money. How carefully are they segregating the two market segments and who’s watching over that and if they’re being inspected a couple of times a year, often superficially, is that notice if that separation isn’t complete. These are the kinds of problems that exist potentially if you think that it’s important to have organic as your diet.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I do. Some people will say that you’re privileged in being concerned about organic food when there are some many people who don’t have enough food who live in food deserts or can’t afford organic food. My personal feeling is my first priority in where my dollars go. I don’t make a lot of money. I work with a very modest income but I believe in buying quality food, organic food. I want to support those businesses so that they can grow and provide more for other people and make it more affordable.
Peter Laufer: And we are so extraordinarily privileged even though some of us are not wealthy. That’s one of the problems also; the markups are perhaps unnecessary and certainly heinous in many respects where some of the stuff costs twice as much because it has the organic label on it and your being told that you can’t find out where it came from.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, so just after you learned all that you’ve learned all over the world about what’s going on with organic food and labeling, what did you learn and what can you recommend we do?
Peter Laufer: I think it’s basic and part of it is based on privilege. If we’re lucky enough to live in a place as I am here in California, relatively adjacent to the producers and have an opportunity year round to have food that is grown locally, adjust my diet a little bit so I don’t find myself compelled to be eating blueberries in February and shop at stores where I feel a comfort that efforts have been made to secure the veracity of the products as they are labeled, then those are the kinds of steps we can take. Who are our retailers, are we confident in our retailers that they are doing their due diligence. When possible, do we know the producers and when it’s the right time of the year, can we get to a farmers’ market where we can meet with the farmer and have a sense of community and enjoy that process but also feel confident that she or he is doing that which should be done so that the food is what they say it is. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the population, those things are not possible based on the time that they have for shopping, based on where they live and based on their climate. That’s why we have regultaroy agencies and that’s why we shouldn’t be able to trust what the labels say.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, should. There are so many regulations that are out there that are not being upheld and those that break it are not being punished appropriately, not just with organic foods but so many regulations we have. Part of it is because the organizations don’t have the funding to carry out what they’re supposed to. You said that for the certification of organic food, there’s something like one inspector for a billion dollars in product or something like that?
Peter Laufer: Yes, although in the last farm bill which was passed since the book went to press, a relative bunch more money has been allocated to the National Organic Program. Now a lot of that is for marketing purposes because the USDA in the National Organic Program is basically in the business of promoting organic food but nonetheless, there will be some more money. But yes, it’s extraordinarily under funded. Perhaps it isn’t as bad as it was in the Upton Sinclair days in of The Jungle but it’s pretty bad.
Caryn Hartglass: Well you were concerned about the conflict of interest going on with the certifiers certifying farms for organic food. The USDA is a conflict of interest within itself.
Peter Laufer: Well, one could argue that because the USDA both engaged in marketing and in inspection and it’s also the USDA that’s certifying these inspectors, these certification companies to be able to certify.
Caryn Hartglass: Now you ended the book talking about the rancid walnuts from Kazakhstan. Have you heard more since you finished the book from the USDA?
Peter Laufer: Yes, I received from the USDA a heavily redacted report on the correspondence they had that determined how they ascertained that in fact those nuts were not organic. I have appealed by a freedom of information act request the redacted report to get more information but again, unfortunately, that report is an example of how the USDA in the National Organic Program responds to my requests has been serving industry, not you and your listeners going to the market.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes and that piece alone is chilling and all of the questions you asked them at the end of your book, I think we’re pretty standard questions any customer would ask a vendor who was providing them a product that wasn’t up to specification.
Peter Laufer: Yes, where did this stuff come from and how did you find out that it wasn’t what you said it was?
Caryn Hartglass: And what are you going to do to prevent it in the future? I mean these are classic standard industry type of customer service vendor relation questions.
Peter Laufer: And you’re government says to you, none of your business, it’s their business.
Caryn Hartglass: None of your business. Okay well I look forward to an update on what happens with that report, what you get and what comes out of it. What are you working on now?
Peter Laufer: Well I’m working on the paperback edition and in fact that will be in the paperback edition of the book Organic where I will have an afterward that will go through this process that I’m in right now with the USDA, trying to get them to explain those questions that you just noted.
Caryn Hartglass: You have, is it a blog or an article called Slow News?
Peter Laufer: Yes it’s a book that I wrote, I wrote in another book that I wrote that deals with maybe slowing down a tad regarding the 24 hour news cycle so that we can, as is the case here with the organic questions, get a little more information and have time to, so to speak, digest it.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s why I brought it up because this is such an important topic and it’s not something we talk about in a sound bite and move on. A lot of information we need to learn and digest like you said. I like the parallel you made where we get empty news just like we are consuming empty calories. Everything is just a quick fix and we’re paying a terrible price for it.
Peter Laufer: We are but we can turn this around and that’s the good news. That’s why the work that you do is so valuable.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, last question and that is, do you have some favorite delicious organic plant foods that you love?
Peter Laufer: Well a lot of them I guess. This place down the street that I told you about, the food emporium makes a wonderful something for breakfast which is a burrito with tofu and fresh vegetables in it. I’m a sucker for it despite the fact it costs $6 and 98 painful cents. As I said earlier, I’m conflicted because of this so called organic popcorn that Trader Joe’s made with olive oil that it’s very hard to buy just one bag and very hard not to eat the whole bag.
Caryn Hartglass: You can make your own. You get some wonderful olive oil from your friend in Tunisia.
Peter Laufer: That’s right and I can make the popcorn myself from popcorn that I buy from a farmer down the street.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely and it will be even more addicting. And you know what? You can package it and sell it and maybe who knows. This could be an incredible product for you.
Peter Laufer: Well it’s just been grand having the opportunity to talk about this with such a sympathetic audience and questioner and it’s terrific that you continue to share with your audience.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you all. I love the book and I know my listeners are passionate about this topic too. We all want to make a difference and help make this world a better place and we need brave people like you going all around the world to find the truth, so thank you for that.
Peter Laufer: A pleasure. Thank you and I look forward to being in touch.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care. Bye.
Transcribed by Stefan Pavlović,7/20/2015