It's Organic, but Where Was It Grown?

Shortly after human rights lawyer Michael Sfard and Nirit Ben-Horin of Tel Aviv joined the city's organic co-op, they began to suspect that the free-range eggs the group was buying came from a farm on an illegal outpost. The farmer, right-wing activist Avri Ran, lives on the outpost of Gva'ot Olam, south of Itamar in the northern West Bank. Ran, a leader of the Hilltop Youth, is also a local organic farming guru. After Sfard and Ben-Horin confirmed the source of the eggs, they left the co-op.

"I can't close my eyes," Sfard says, given his work with Palestinians harmed by settlers. "The chickens may be ranging free, but the Palestinians in the area were employed under slave conditions, and their lands were stolen. Organic consumerism doesn't mean only healthy eggs, but also making consumer choices that don't harm the environment, people or animals," he adds.

Ran's eggs are marketed through various intermediaries, and in many cases the farm's address does not appear on the package. The only hint is the farm's initials, G.O., which appear in small print on the eggs.

Avi Levy, a long-time organic consumer who is active in Green Action, an organization that promotes social and environmental change, says the Ram farm is not the only one that does not mark its products. He says a growing number of organic products are not marked with the farmer's name and address; sometimes only a producer's code or the address of the company offices are listed.

This lack of information is problematic for environmentalists, who prefer local organic products over imported ones. A principle of the organic movement is to present alternatives to standard food industries, whose "commercial secrecy" means withholding information about the production chain and the ingredients. The Israeli standard for organic products also requires that the source be clearly marked on the package. However, some argue that in many cases, the labels are not specific enough.

For example, the Beerotayim farm in the Sharon region clearly marks its free-range eggs with its address. However, some of Beerotayim's eggs come from the West Bank settlement of Shiloh (see "Good eggs from the West Bank," Haaretz, August 1).

Yossi Davidovich, the owner of Beerotayim farm, said he works with 13 chicken farmers, of whom only one is in the territories.

"People in the Tel Aviv area have a problem with this, and out of consideration for the public, I try to direct these eggs to Jerusalem, where they are welcomed," he says. "In 99.9 percent of the cases," eggs from the settlements are not marketed in Tel Aviv, but marking them with different stickers is too expensive, Davidovich says, so he does not do so.

Haaretz journalists Aviv Lavi and Shiri Katz surveyed the organic tehina sold at natural food stores, and found that tehina from the Ahdut processing plant in Barkan, which is over the Green Line, is marketed under several brand names: Harduf, Live, Adama, Nitzat Haduvdevan and Ahdut-Ahva. The Harduf, Adama and Nitzat Haduvdevan packages do not list an address for the producer.

The producers and the organic farmers association do not see anything untoward about this. Haggai Raban, director of Agrior, the main oversight body for organic products in Israel, says the organization has full documentation detailing the products' source, and that this can be obtained on request. "We don't interfere in producers' commercial considerations, or in how a producer wants to present the product," he adds.

Doron Shafon, Harduf's marketing director, also invites consumers to call with questions. When asked for a list of all producers in the territories that are partnered with Harduf, the company responded that no such list exists, and said it does not map producers according to their political or geographical distribution.

This response infuriates Sfard and Levy. Sfard says that instead of forcing the consumer to hunt for information, the market is tending toward placing responsibility for disclosure on the producer. Sfard says he believes the organic companies and the growers must address the issue of product source, and behave transparently. "It's the right thing in general, and especially with regard to organic products, since the organic concept is essentially political," he says.