Fake Organics, Real Pain

Nov. 24, 2021

Why organic food fraud is not harmless.

In the Nov. 15 issue of the New Yorker, there is a terrific article by Ian Parker about the case of Randy Constant, a grain salesman based in Iowa who perpetrated the greatest organic food fraud in American history.

For more than 15 years, Constant sold what has been estimated at a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of corn and soybeans fraudulently labeled as organic. In 2016, he was estimated to have bought and sold 7% of all the organic corn and 8% of all organic soybeans sold in the U.S. – only next to none of his was really organic. He pled guilty to fraud, was sentenced to 10 years, and in August 2019, committed suicide before he was due to report to federal prison.

Constant’s scheme was almost comical in its simplicity. He would buy non-organic grain from wherever and sell it through his own brokerage. He had USDA organic certification for some acreage he owned in Iowa, and it was an easy matter to apply this to the oceans of grain that were now flooding through his brokerage.

It was easy because no one really cared. Constant hired an organic certification agency – actually, two, because the first one got suspicious – and as long as he had the USDA certificate, it went unnoticed for year after year that he was moving far more grain than the land he owned could possibly grow.

This indifference is rooted in an attitude of organic farmers toward their ultimate customers that, as Parker describes it, sounds very close to contempt:

“There was a little bit of a sense of effete, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving people,” [a lawyer involved with the case] said. “The whole idea of organic corn versus other kinds of corn, you know – once you grind it up and put it into cornmeal, who the hell knows the difference?”

I almost hate to say it, but I can kind of see where that attitude comes from. I’ve often thought that the secret ingredient in organic food is hype. I can maybe see its value for things like raw produce, if you happen to be really spooked about pesticides or something, but organic potato chips? Come on. That’s just a way to make people feel good about eating something they know they shouldn’t.

That’s not to excuse what Constant did. He charged his customers, and ultimately a lot of consumers, for something he didn’t deliver. You don’t have to be Jewish to know that falsely labeling food as kosher (which has happened) is fraud, and you don’t have to be a latte-sipping Volvo driver to know that false organic labels are also wrong. Organic grain growers and sellers don’t have to be believers, but they do have to be honest.