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Why the “Organic Food” You’re Paying For is Anything But

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Testing Fruit
NerdWallet bought 12 Costa Verde-brand fresh pineapples in Oregon and California, and a bag of Valle Verde frozen chunks in Texas, for testing by a USDA-compliant lab. The tests detected no prohibited chemicals.


Pineapple farmers say the results don’t prove the absence of chemicals because they are hard to detect if applied at the start of the growing period, when their effect would be greatest.
Agricultural engineer Jean-Marc Caminade, pineapple sales manager for global fruit conglomerate Compagnie Fruitiere Paris, says he began buying organic-labeled pineapple from Valle Verde in 2015.
But he says that he stopped buying after the company repeatedly failed to supply government inspection forms to prove each shipment was organic.
Adobe
Blood, Sweat And Organics
Caminade recently visited what he considers an authentic organic farm, Valle del Tarso, which sits northwest of Pital. Here, farmhands live and breathe organics.
Production manager Isaac Bustos Boza stresses prevention, taking extraordinary measures to safeguard his MD2s, organic versions of the Gold Extra Sweet variety of pineapple revered worldwide.
“Once you have a disease, it’s explosive. There’s no way you’re going to control it in 70,000 plants,” says Bustos, an agronomist.
Instead of applying a chemical to kill worms, Valle del Tarso uses a natural product from the Australian neem tree. The farm makes natural insecticides from chili pepper and tea. It ferments organic fertilizers from pineapple waste.
The farm is the kind of enterprise that Mark Kastel, co-founder of the nonprofit watchdog Cornucopia Institute, cites when urging skeptics not to write off all organics as bogus.
“If you just paint this as being a corrupt system,” Kastel said, “you’re throwing literally thousands of families under the bus.”
Bogus exports are undercutting the legitimate industry so much that Compania Frutera La Paz, a big Pital-area fruit processor, decided in November to cut its losses by selling frozen organic pineapples as conventional.
La Paz managers say the company took a $100,000 hit.
Police Close In


In recent weeks, Costa Rican television reporters have converged on pineapple fields, questioning more farmers about Valle Verde.
Amid the publicity, owner Barrantes may be ready to walk away. An agriculture ministry official says the company is withdrawing some farms from organic status.
A ministry official inspecting a neighboring farm recently reported a telltale odor he suspected was from an organics-prohibited pesticide applied to a Valle Verde organic field. The ministry is investigating.
On Dec. 5, the ministry disclosed that Costa Rica’s national police had seized documents concerning the agency’s decision to lift Valle Verde’s suspension as an organic processor. A week later, company competitors challenged that reversal in a lawsuit that accuses officials of ignoring evidence and railroading Jimenez, the inspector.
After two turbulent years, the Valle Verde pineapple saga is undergoing a plot twist. But the word around Pital is that more growers are lining up to play the organic game.
And Pital isn’t the only place that stinks.
NerdWallet investigative reporter Alex Richards contributed to this article.
Photo of Jose “Pepe” Castro Otarola by Richard Read.
The article The Dirt on ‘Organic’ Food: You May Be Paying for Fakes originally appeared on NerdWallet.