Schumer to USDA: Protect Yates County's organic farmers from foreign fraud and mislabeling
Gillibrand to Senate: reject Trump administration's cuts to nutrition programs for New York families

In less than a 24-hour span, both of New York’s United States Senators, Charles E. “Chuck” Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, made independent visits to Yates County, both with agriculture and consumers foremost in their minds.

Schumer, the U.S. Senate Minority Leader, visited Birkett Mills in Penn Yan Friday afternoon to say newly discovered shipments of fraudulently labeled organic products into U.S. could hurt American farmers and consumers if regulators do not step up the oversight of imported organic foods. If mislabeled organic products continue to reach America, they will undermine consumer trust in “organic” brands, he says.

Schumer is calling on the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to get tough and crack down on mislabeled products from making it to the American market. “Yates County has more organic farming than anywhere in New York and we need to help it grow,” says Schumer.

Schumer will call on the USDA to work with the Office of the Inspector General to examine and immediately address the issue of organics fraud, including more aggressive enforcement. “The organic industry has greatly expanded in recent years — in Yates County and all over Upstate New York — creating exciting new opportunities for New York farmers, but food products — especially foreign ones mislabeled as ‘organic’ — threaten to undermine the growing industry in Yates County and throughout Upstate New York.

Schumer says that the Birkett Mills and other Yates County organic growers and processors like Lakeview Organic Grain Mill, which makes organic animal feed in Penn Yan, will be hurt if the USDA does not work harder to address the issue of non-organic products entering the U.S. and being sold as USDA-certified organic.

“Agriculture is the backbone of Upstate New York’s economy. Increasingly, organic produce and products are becoming lucrative for producers across Yates County, enabling them to bring jobs and investments to the region. But these producers are threatened by foreign imports that illegally mislabel products and undermine New York’s famers. I am demanding that the USDA redouble their efforts and work to stop these producers in their tracks,” said Schumer, adding, “Consumers must know that when they purchase a product that says ‘certified organic’ that they are getting what they paid for. The threat of phony organics entering our domestic market could undermine that confidence. The USDA must work with the OIG to crack down immediately on these fraudulent products and ensure the continued growth and confidence in New York farmers’organic production.”

Schumer cited a Washington Post investigation that exposed a shipment of 36 million pounds of non-organic soybeans and corn shipped from Ukraine and Turkey to California fraudulently labeled as “USDA organic” when they reached the U.S., reportedly boosting soybeans prices by $4 million. While deceiving consumers, it also hurt organic producers, as more than 21 million pounds of the shipment had already reached farms and mills by the time authorities acted.

Demand for organic farming in New York and nationwide has been rapidly increasing over the last decade, according to the N.Y. State Department of Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM); from 392 in 2005 to over 1,050 in 2015. According to the 2014 USDA Organic Census, New York is the third largest state for the number of organic farms, fourth in the number of organic farm acres, and seventh in annual sales, with over 1400 organic farms and businesses maintaining the USDA certified organic label.

Schumer said with this important and rapidly expanding market, American growers and producers are currently being threatened by non-organic products being imported and sold to American consumers as USDA-certified organic.

Birkett Mills has been in business in Penn Yan since 1797 and employs about 35 workers; manufacturing a line of certified USDA Organic buckwheat products including organic buckwheat flour, kasha, and other products, and contracts with local farmers and local organic farms to produce much of the grain it uses for its products.

Only certified producers may legally use the word “organic” or the USDA Organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. However, USDA reports have revealed that dozens of overseas producers have used fraudulent organic certificates to illegally market, label, or sell non-organic agricultural products as organic. At least two fraudulent Organic Certificates revealed by the USDA in 2012 and 2011 were of China-based production, and listed buckwheat among the agricultural products it fraudulently listed as certified organic.

Since 1990, the USDA has had the sole responsibility of certifying that products grown domestically and internationally meet organic standards set in 2002. Farmers must produce the food with methods that maximize soil health, conserve water, and reduce air pollution. Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones. Meeting these standards is the core of the organic certification process for domestic and foreign products. USDA-approved state, non-profit, and private agencies called “certifiers,” are charged with enforcing these standards to assure quality, prevent fraud, and to promote commerce.

“It’s imperative that the USDA enhance its oversight of organic products and ensure that products coming from foreign countries are indeed organic,” said Schumer.

See a copy of Schumer’s letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue below.

Gillibrand supports local families and farms

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, visited The Windmill Farm and Craft Market Saturday, July 8 for a press conference urging the Senate to reject the Trump Administration’s budget proposal to cut critical funding to federal nutrition programs that allow low income families to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods for their families. The Trump Administration’s proposed budget would cut SNAP funding by $193 billion over 10 years, even though 13 percent of all Yates County households rely on SNAP for their sustenance.

Senator Gillibrand toured the produce barn, and purchased some locally grown blueberries before speaking to the assembled crowd at the center court of The Windmill. Gillibrand decried the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) proposed in Donald Trump’s 2018 budget 2018 plan.

“Regardless of where you live, or your political beliefs, I think we can all agree that access to nutritious food should not be a partisan issue,” said Gillibrand. “Budgets are about priorities, and taking food away from our children, our seniors, our veterans, and our hard working families in the Finger Lakes who are struggling to make ends meet, should never be a priority of the federal government.”

She explained how SNAP funded programs serve children and families in Yates County, and how the Trump Administration’s proposed budget cuts would severely harm SNAP, WIC, and the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program; thus denying those consumers most in need access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and reducing the customer base of local farmers like those who sell at The Windmill.

Following her speech, Gillibrand responded to a question regarding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement that morning after the senate healthcare bill was found to have insufficient support among members of his own party to pass, that he would now seek a bipartisan solution. Gillibrand acknowledged that there are problems with Obamacare, as the current system has been tagged, primarily rising expense of insurance premiums for working Americans. Gillibrand strongly supports a “not-for-profit, public option,” such as allowing individuals and families of any age to buy into Medicare, which has higher efficiency and satisfaction ratings and lower overhead than private insurance plans. Gillibrand said without multi-million dollar executive salaries and shareholders expecting profits, the public option would therefore be much more affordable, and provide real competition in regions where there are only one or two insurance plans offered. “Right now, insurance companies are eating our lunch,” said Gillibrand. “We need to shake it up and change the model.”