Is Your Food Really Organic? California Man Convicted of Selling Non-Organic Fertilizer

Thursday Mar 1 | BY |
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wild blueberry organic
There’s no middle man to trust or grill when you’re eating wild blueberries…

For 6 years Peter Townsley sold organic fertilizer to organic farms in Salinas Valley, California — about $6.5 million dollars worth.

Seems like an ordinary, American capitalistic success story.

The only exception is that the fertilizer wasn’t really organic.

Here’s an excerpt of the story from

A former fertilizer maker has pleaded guilty to selling non-organic fertilizer to farmers who thought they were buying an organic product, federal prosecutors announced today.

Peter Townsley, 50, admitted on Feb. 22 to selling Biolizer XN to organic farmers from April 2000 to December 2006. Biolizer XN was labeled as organic but it actually included two chemical ingredients prohibited on organic farms, said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag.

Townsley’s Salinas Valley company, California Liquid Fertilizer, made more than $6.5 million in sales from the non-organic fertilizer, Haag said.

My thoughts on this news:

You have to know that this happens more than we’d like to think…

We can’t be so naive to completely trust all organic stickers in the produce aisle at our local Whole Foods or even Co-op and farmer’s market.

Sometimes — in organics — things aren’t what they appear to be, and in this case, our biggest fears about the organic label are confirmed.

Sometimes it says organic and it’s really not.

I’d like to think this is an isolated incident, but from what I’ve seen over the years, I don’t think it is.

As the owner of a company that imports and sells select products (and a skin care line), it’s been our responsibility to ask the hard questions to potential suppliers. But many times, we’ve found that they just don’t have the answers. They don’t know if the product is all organic, they can’t confirm or produce a certification.

This lack of due diligence is the first sign that we don’t want to do business with them.

Now there’s nothing wrong with not knowing, but when you don’t know if your Xanthan gum is GMO free or not, to me, that’s an issue. Worse, if you tell me it’s GMO free one day and then a week later you say it’s not, then we’re definitely not going to have a relationship at all.

If someone doesn’t have even that small level of control over their product, how can you trust that anything else they say about it is true.

Raw Chocolate Not Raw For Years

A few years ago, Essential Living Foods announced publicly that their raw chocolate distributor was sending them chocolate that was never raw — for almost a half a decade. ELF was selling to many of the places you may have bought it from at the time. They’ve since changed suppliers, but it leaves a mark on an industry that is desperately in need for real truth in labeling laws.

I say “real,” because you can fudge a label enough to make it look like it’s clean. In the food industry, if you have questionable ingredients, you can just add them to a sub-ingredient and not have to put the contents of the combined on the label. For example, you can add MSG and have it unlisted under the intellectual property loop hole that protects the word “Spices.”

In the skin care industry it’s possibly even worse.

We’ve seen the deception first hand.

We’ve been told that you can add preservatives and not put them on the label… “everyone in the natural industry is doing it.”

You can greenwash a label by taking a questionable ingredient and then put the plant it’s derived from in parenthesis afterwords — even if the ingredient was extracted using petrochemicals.

An example is the use of cocamidopropyl betaine in shampoo products. This is extracted from coconut oil (natural) and petrochemicals (unnatural). When you put it on the label of natural product you can easily tidy up the joint by listing it like this:

Coconut Oil (Cocamidopropyl betaine)

Let me ask you, if you read this on an ingredient label would you think that there’s nice, natural organic coconut oil in this product or a surfactant produced in a lab with petrochemicals?

I, before I knew any better, would think that if you say coconut oil, you’d have coconut oil in the product.

It’s just not always the case.

To me it’s wrong — maybe even borderline sickening.

Truthfully, I do think some people overreact a bit to what the chemicals can do to the body and some products that have these ingredients are almost completely safe to use, but I’m not arguing efficacy and safety here — I’m arguing the principles of honesty.

If something is in the product it should be on the label — simple as that. This way the consumer is informed and they can make a choice if they want what they see. It’s just fair trade.

If they can’t see the truth, then they’ve been duped.

Back to the fertilizer incident…

In this case, you can’t even circumvent the issue by saying “just buy local,” because there’s a chance that the local farmer was buying this non-organic fertilizer thinking it was organic. Judging by the amount sold, $6.5 million in 6 years, chances are Mr. Townsley was not a big time player in the farming game — which means it’s more likely the smaller farms did buy from him.

But this man was caught, so that means people started asking questions — the farmers, the consumers, the distributors and eventually law enforcement.

That’s the power the consumer has, the power to ask.

Personally, I think that’s all the policing we need as a community. The more questions you ask, the more stories either strengthen or unfold and you discover who you can really trust and who would be better left alone.

But, please stay calm.

This likely happens more than we’re comfortable with, but not enough to completely destroy the credibility of the organic industry.

There are still more good people selling good products that are what they say they are, than less.

They’re in your community, they’re online and they’re waiting for you to ask them the hard questions — because they already know the answers and they’re exactly what you want to hear.

Your Question of the Day: Have you even been tricked by labels or someone who you thought was selling you one thing and it turned out to be something else?

Live Awesome!

Kevin Gianni

Kevin Gianni is a health author, activist and blogger. He started seriously researching personal and preventative natural health therapies in 2002 when he was struck with the reality that cancer ran deep in his family and if he didn’t change the way he was living — he might go down that same path. Since then, he’s written and edited 6 books on the subject of natural health, diet and fitness. During this time, he’s constantly been humbled by what experts claim they know and what actually is true. This has led him to experiment with many diets and protocols — including vegan, raw food, fasting, medical treatments and more — to find out what is myth and what really works in the real world.

Kevin has also traveled around the world searching for the best protocols, foods, medicines and clinics around and bringing them to the readers of his blog — which is one of the most widely read natural health blogs in the world with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month from over 150 countries around the world.


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  1. Jeni says:

    Yes, I probably have been. I’m interested in what questions I might ask – besides, “Is it Organic?” and how to discern the truth. It seems like I would have to know alot more about the specific product, where it comes from, what it looks like etc. I’ll be honest, that’s a lot of work to put into a simple purchase. But I can depend on folks like you to do the work for me…and I would guess you have gotten much better at that because you see the products a lot more and have become familiar with them. ANy suggestions?

  2. Claudia says:

    As Jeni said, I probably have purchased things that purported to be something they were not. We try our best to do things right and honestly but there is always someone who messes it up by being dishonest or sloppy. So I continue to read the labels, as questions, and buy from reputable people. All you an do is try, support organizations that police these things, and enjoy life!

  3. Bill Murphy says:

    We found out last weekend that not all of the bananas that we had been buying from the organic markets over the last few years have been organic. We turned up at the markets and went to our friendly banana grower as usual but he was not there.

    Turned out that he had been kicked out of the markets due to selling some non organic produce. This was a shame as we had been getting a box of bananas off him nearly every week for many years and had never questioned the fact that any of it may not have been organic.

    The positive out of this is that the integrity of the markets organisers to only supply organic has stood up. To boot out one of their own and a favourite of many shoppers for misleading practices gives us faith that the rest of the producers there are selling the real deal.

    The only way to know for sure though is to grow it yourself.

  4. Ellen from Davis says:

    Hey Kevin,

    This may not be as important as the organic/non-organic oversight you document, in terms of health and safety, but I bought quite a lot of “raw” almond butter from various companies that ended up being made from pasteurized almonds. Afterwards, I started reading labels more carefully and often also consulting company websites (or blog comments) to find out about questionable ingredients.

    For instance, the stevia I was using turned out to be mostly maltodextrin, made from conventional – and therefore probably GMO – corn. Yikes!

    Here’s to transparency!


  5. Catherine says:

    In reguards to the word “cocamidopropyl” I learned 15 years ago from Hulda Clark not to use/buy anything with the letters “PROP” anywhere in the words on the ingredient list/label. A simple rule that has really has helped me over the years chose better products.

  6. Bryan says:

    I hate how labels get fudged like that. I don’t understand how it can be ok to put a petrochemical in a product that is molecularly the same or similar to a “natural” ingredient when they are not both really in the bottle. this is not like being at a back yard BBQ and the cook tells you “Wellll…it tastes like chicken.” Is it chicken or not! I guess the good news is that all this game playing with labels means a lot more consumers are reading them and choosing products with better ingredients. So now Company X has to stretch the boundaries of truth and creativity to keep selling their product.

    Now about those “Organic” farmers. Are they losing their organic status and for how many years? The consumer was poisoned but likely survived, these farmers may lose their livelihoods.

  7. Lester says:

    Yes, and this is exactly where the power of placebo comes into effect. If you really believe something to be true, then your body/mind should compensate for any foul play. I believe there is a tipping point where the harm could become so great that our organism can’t cope. Placebos work best in small increments. Do you believe in the power of placebo?

  8. Dishonesty happens in any business. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that it happens in organic circles.

    I have heard of other non organic produce being packaged and sold as organic by unscrupulous people in Europe.

    Here in the UK there was a case of meat being supplied to a supermarket as organic when it wasn’t. We never really know if what we are eating is what we think it is.

    I have been deceived by a “natural” hair color that I used for some time. I was surprised to discover it contained PPD, an Arylamine, a chemical that is a known risk factor for bladder cancer.

  9. George says:

    Yes, Kev, although we would like to believe that all labels tell the truth and nothing but…, the reality is something different. The USA is a much bigger country than Australia, so the problem is probably that much larger. While I hope that the “organic” provider in Woy Woy is selling all genuine product, she can never be sure without rigorous inspection of the suppliers. From your report, it seems that even the “organic processed foods” on her shelves may also be suspect. I agree that it doesn’t mean that we judge all farmers by the example of one “bad apple”, it just means exercising some more discernment.

  10. Karen says:

    I have always wondered about labels. Thanks to people like you and Mike Adams, Davie Wolfe, Kevin Trudeau, et al., our eyes are opening to many new things. I guess we only know for sure what is in our food when we grow it ourselves. But then again, the chem trails are regularly dropping chemicals on us.

    BTW, where the heck is Annmarie? I miss her.

  11. Velda says:

    Yes, of course. Everyone has – whether they know it or know – whether they admit it or not. It is a shame that people cannot be trusted – buyer beware.

    I saw the trailer for the film “Hungry For Change” and signed up for the free viewing. I see it has Jamie Oliver in it – Love Mr. Oliver. He is so passionate about what he is trying to accomplish. He is not always dealing with keeping GMO and non-organic food away from the people, but he is definitely raising the level of awareness of people about what we are eating. Thanks for bringing this to us, Kevin. You are the best!!

  12. Linda says:

    As far as I know I haven’t had any truth-in-labeling issues since going organic and buying as much locally-produced food as possible.

    Not long before making the switch to as-much-as-possible local and organic, I did learn a lesson in label reading though. I’ve always been a pretty meticulous label reader, except that once I was confident in a product I didn’t read the label again, sometimes even for years. I ended up finding that products I thought I knew, had revised their labels, and I was unknowingly buying and eating stuff containing ingredients I didn’t want.

    Lesson learned. Although I don’t read every label every time, and I buy very little processed food, I check much more frequently than I used to. And, I grow as much of our food as I can, using only compost I’ve made myself – no fertilizers needed.

  13. Mark says:

    Appreciate you pointing this out Kevin.

    Even more reason now to eat fresh, whole foods and don’t buy anything in a can, package or box. If you speak to and get to know your local farmers, you can get a good idea if they are being truthful or not. You can also visit their farms to see for yourself. That’s what I did recently, not to find out, but at the invitation of the farmer when they were having a special event at the farm.

    I walked most of the farm, tasted most of what was growing, checked the soil and looked for evidence of pesticides. It was a great experience and everything tasted so fresh and hearty.

    You can ask lots of questions and see how they answer. Are there large containers around the farm? How do they grow? Ask them and you can generally tell.

    If they let you come to the farm and explain how they grow, most likely they are being straightforward and you may not even need to visit the farm. I enjoyed my visit and even came home with a trunk-full of greens – even torso sided heads of lettuce – at no cost 🙂

    And if you don’t buy anything processed, which I’ve now mostly avoided for over 5 years now, you don’t have to worry whether or not anything is organic or healthy. You don’t need the processed stuff, even the creams and lotions, or anything with a label on it, so you can be largely confident about eating naturally grown foods.

    Sure, there are always exceptions, but I always prefer naturally and locally grown to grocery store organic. There’s just NO comparison with something grown close by and on your table within a day or two vs. produce grown weeks ago and in refrigeration and transportation for days or weeks before getting to your table – even if it’s organic. And of course, growing it in your own garden is the ultimate.

    This year I’ve been grateful for an abundance of greens and half a garden full of romaine that appeared without seeding! Must have been from last season or my compost, not sure but grateful for the abundance of hearty greens!

  14. luc says:

    I have a friend that sells huge amounts of olive oil and has said that no matter how organic, virgin, first pressed….whatever, they still need alcohol or chemical to extract the oil. Maybe it’s the same for coconut.

  15. Lisa says:

    The trouble is that my husband doesn’t even try to buy organic because he doesn’t believe it can be relied on so he’s not prepared to pay more to ‘not get it’. This sort of story just compounds that feeling.

    What is the answer? Only buying from people you know? Having even tighter rules and inspections (help!)? – That usually benefits the bigger suppliers and gets rid of the smaller businesses.

    We don’t get a lot of vegetables grown in our area and most people certainly don’t have the time to visit. It is a difficult one.

    Thanks for bringing the discussion out though!

    Wishing you great health!

    Lisa ;o)

  16. Julia says:

    The first poster asked what questions can we ask. Here’s a suggestion: talk directly with the local farmers and ask them exactly what products they use on their crops then research those specific products – that may be how this particular fertilizer was discovered. It may sound like a lot of work, but you only have to research your local farmer once, then when you know you can trust where your food is coming from all is good. Some farmers even have a worker program where you can help out directly at their farm for some time in exchange for co-op food boxes. Then you can see for yourself their growing practices and the products they use. Other than growing your own food, that seems to be a good way of going around this dilemma.

    I use to be so terrible – I use to go grocery shopping at the 99 cent store and eat all processed foods. I was saving time and money, but ruining my health. When I moved to a new place I just wanted to be close to the cheapest stores and I bought all microwavable foods. Now I don’t even touch the microwave (it’s built in to the apartment, otherwise I don’t own one). Now I eat all organic, fresh foods and I’m planning on moving to a new place and I’m doing an enormous amount of research to make sure I have access to lots of good healthy organic foods and I’m researching out local farmers in the area I want to go. I am even strategically bypassing jobs in certain areas just so I can move to an area where I know I’ll have access to the quality foods I need. It takes a lot of work, but once I’m settled and know where my food is going to come from and know it will be the best quality I can afford (in addition to growing my own as much as possible) then I think I’m on the right path… Invest time and money in your health to the best of your ability.

    A positive thing about this story is that it mentions there were only 2 chemicals that were in the fertilizer that were against the organic certification system. That’s still a lot better than buying conventional produce! Do you know how many nasty chemicals are on a conventionally grown apple? Over a hundred! So this will not stop me from buying organic. Conventional produce is not only grown with positively non-organic fertilizers but also tons of pesticides and other nasty products.

  17. Sandi Neal says:

    I use my microwave as a spice cabinet. Gives me more cabinet space.

  18. Julia says:

    Wow, that’s funny… I just bumped into a YouTube video about Whole Foods selling organic foods (their organic 360 line, some of the frozen veggies, etc.), that are labled USDA organic and QAI (quality assurance international) certified but then they are also “products of China” and we know China does not have the same quality processes for organic foods so you have to question if they’re truly organic.

    Here’s the link to the video news story:

  19. Tom says:

    It is very difficult and expensive to receive organic certification, so this is not something you want to risk losing. I’d be willing to bet that this clown who sold his fertilizer falsely as organic was never certified in the first place, and presented false credentials, but in any case it is the responsibility of the organic growers to check the certifications of their suppliers and make sure they are authentic. It’s easy enough to do, and all part of the due diligence you do to protect your organic grower status. If he was able to pull the wool over certain growers’ eyes for six years, they weren’t following through with their due diligence, which could cost them their organic certification. He got caught because someone did do their due diligence and questioned the authenticity of his product. Kudos to whomever that was, and shame on the ones who took his word.

  20. Em says:

    I had been buying produce from a seller at our local farmer’s market who was selling “unsprayed” apples. He said he couldn’t call them organic since they were transitioning to organic (the soil may have still contained traces of previous chemicals so therefore couldn’t be certified organic). Since we had no other vendors selling organic here at that time, I bought from him regularly. Then one week, he was out by the time I got to his booth. Disappointed, I was walking around the market and saw one of his workers at another fruit stand (definitely not one that even tried to be organic). I watched and followed as he bought and transported cases of apples from them to his stand where they continued to sell them under the unsprayed label! Needless to say, I didn’t buy from them again!
    My husband, from all his chemistry background, always mocks “organic” labeling. In chemistry, organic means live organisms or derived from live organisms, whereas inorganic refers to not coming from natural growth. By that definition, ALL food (fruits, veggies, grains, meat, dairy, etc) is organic! There is no such thing as an inorganic apple! Beware…

  21. Donna says:

    Yes, I have been tricked by our local Ingle’s chain grocery store. I go to a certain Ingles chain store for organics. They have a “cool” feature; a big tag that you can recognize from a distance that reads “Organic”.
    In the vegetable section, there was the tag “organic” directly above some apples. But the apples were the same brand as the conventional apples. Upon investigation, there were no organic apples in the store, and the ones in the organic section had been sprayed with petrochemicals. The same went for other veggies under the organic tag. The first time I thought it might be a mistake, but the next time I threw a fit, and told the produce person that this was a deception, that this really mattered to some people, and I was one of them.
    If this happens again, I will find out who to contact (“food police”) many folks will just grab a product in the organic section and take it home without reading the label.

  22. Thomas says:

    Ingle’s does have organic produce.

    If the number on the item starts with a #9 and has 5 digits, it’s organic.
    If it starts with a #4 and has 4 digits it is conventional (pesticides & herbicides included).
    If it starts with a #5 run away! It’s GM. 🙂

  23. heather says:

    If you haven’t already, would you take a look at this and perhaps do a blog about it after extra research? If this is really how it is then we need to gather together to stop this sickening procedure :< No one wants gelatin on their produce!

  24. Todd says:

    How do I start? At the beginning? When I was 19 yrs. old (I’m 45 now) my teeth were rotting before my eyes. I began studying all medicine with a passion. I “lucked” upon a dental book “Dental Self-help”. That book helped me to realize the importance of nutrition to our health more than any other information which I had been presented with previously. It also taught me spiritual lessons related to this article. “They’ll kill you if they can.” And, the often misquoted,”The LOVE OF MONEY is the root of all evil.” By learning about “organic” food & traditional Chinese medicine early on, I was able to save my health — & life. I say “organic” because the definition of the word really means “anything containing a carbon atom”, which includes all of our food. What “we” are looking for is healthy food that not only sustains our bodies, the desired food actually HEALS our bodies! I admire what the Giannis are doing here greatly. Don’t stay TOO scientific. Remember: the spirit world controls the mental world controls the physical world.

  25. Anna21 says:

    Great article. I am glad we have you & Anne Marie Sad to say, I have been fooled many times, especially by hair conditioners & skin care products that play name games.

    I was also fooled by so-called ‘organic’ soils & fertilizers when I started my container garden. Miracle Gro & many other so-called organic brands are full of chemicals & construction waste.

    Many fertilizers contain scary ingredients- chicken & cow poop are from nasty factory farms (sea bird poop is a better alternative- it’s from wild birds).

    Cottonseed & soybean meal are chock full of GMO’s. Some ‘composts’ are sewage sludge!!!

    I started looking up potting soil recipes online, so going forward I will make my own with coconut coir, earth worm castings, pumice, a little sand, pine needles, azomite and my own compost.

  26. LynnCS says:

    I suspect that Ann is pregnant and you are keeping it close to you two and that is why we haven’t seen her. If so, I am sending my loving thoughts and prayers to you both for a wonderful journey. If not, I still send you lots of love.

    About the organic label. I just do my best. I haven’t been raw organic for long, so just a short few months ago I was eating everything and am just grateful to be doing better. In my area, we don’t have a lot of good organic food available, so I do get some non organic anyway. I wash (rinse) everything, and recently learned to add white vinegar to my wash water. Having said that, I do know that non organic/organic has a lot to do with what is grown into the fruit or vegi and cannot be washed off. This is a big part of wanting to clean up the growing of our produce. It must be expensive to grow a clean fruit or vegi. Otherwise why would this be so hard. Kevin, I would love to see a cost relation study shown here to show us why this is such a hard thing to change. What is the advantage to continue using the old ways of growing?

    When I visit my family in the Central Valley, I am sick for a couple weeks after being there. They just accept it as normal. When you drive down into the Valley from the mountains, you see 10′ thick haze of top soil dust and chemical spray. The cute planes buzz the tops of the fields spewing chemicals right next the their homes. I would be screaming at them,or wanting to shoot at them. They just think it’s cool. This is all because we demand perfect looking produce. Have to admit, I pick out the nicest looking ones, but it becomes a more money making way to grow. How do we get to ordinary people to make better choices? It starts there.

  27. Linda says:

    Organic canola oil… can such a thing exist? …….my queries are answered with the information that the canola oil which folks now use has been genetically modified to take out the ‘bad’ stuff. To make it more palitable, and profitable. Was there ever a plant named ‘canola’? I thought it came from the rapeseed plant, at least that’s where it began. Even ‘whole foods’ puts it into there foods and sells an’organic’ bottle of canola oil. I won’t touch it. Don’t trust it at all. I wrote them about it but got no response. I guess one voice was not enough…..

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