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Can Consumers Trust the 'USDA Organic' Label on Food Products from China?

Widely publicized reports of Chinese lapses in guaranteeing the safety of its food exports, including press reports raising questions about the integrity of its organic food exports, suggest an urgent need to increase government and industry oversight that will guarantee organic integrity and reassure consumers.

The National Organic Program, which has never sent an auditor to China to make even one site visit, recently disclosed in an interview with the Des Moines Register that it will make surprise visits to organic farming and processing operations in China and check the records of several of the USDA-accredited certifiers operating there.

It has been little short of irresponsible to allow nearly five years to go by without having some kind of official on-site surveillance of the activities of USDA- accredited certifiers working in China.  Barbara Robinson, the Agricultural Marketing Service official who supervises the NOP, has consistently resisted suggestions that there was any need to send auditors to China.  Her response has been that the NOP has not received any complaints that would require an on-site visit.

The NOP did not disclose what kind of information had surfaced that was important enough to force this unexpected turnaround.  It is unclear how much of a surprise the publicized visits will be or whether they are a response to recent disturbing press reports about Chinese food imports, pressure from the organic trade, specific complaints, or something else. But any visit by an NOP auditor would have to be viewed here as a good thing and long overdue.

The new announcement also suggests that the NOP has finally concluded that accrediting certifiers requires some on-site surveillance as well as a responsibility to investigate complaints.  All of the certifiers in the NOP system were accredited without a site visit, and it has taken the agency several years to get around to visiting all of them. It still is unclear after nearly five years whether every single accredited foreign certifier has had an on-site visit.

Certifiers Working in China

Although China's 32 certification organizations certify to a Chinese government standard and provide the guarantee for organic food moving into the tiny domestic market there, the current list of 95 NOP-accredited certifying agents does not include any Chinese certifiers. Presumably none are directly certifying organic food being brought into this country.  At least two Chinese certifiers have formal working relationships with NOP-accredited certifiers, however, and thus have some shared access to U.S. markets.

Several of the 40 foreign certifiers accredited by the NOP are active in China and presumably cooperate with the U.S.-based accredited certifying agents working there.  This relatively small number of accredited U.S. and foreign certifiers, all working in China but based in other countries, provide the only guarantee of Chinese organic food integrity that both the trade and U.S. consumers have to rely on.

The identity of the NOP-accredited certifiers scheduled to receive additional scrutiny was not immediately disclosed.  It is likely that the NOP-accredited European certifiers working in China will receive much of the attention.  It is unclear whether this will be limited to checks of randomly selected China-related files or whether it will involve auditor visits to farms and processors certified by each of the NOP-accredited certifiers operating there.

Need for Additional Oversight

Under normal circumstances this new NOP initiative would be reassuring to consumers of imported Chinese organic food in Europe and Japan as well as those in the United States.  All of the NOP-accredited certifiers working in China have good international reputations.  But the recalls of pet food contaminated with ingredients from China, the reports of antifreeze in imported tooth paste, and other food safety disasters have cast a long shadow over all Chinese food exports, organic and conventional alike, and strongly suggest the need for more oversight.

Consumers are understandably concerned over recent headlines saying "Why the Stink Over China's Organic Food?," "China Quietly Muscles in on the Organic Food Market," "China, Unregulated," and "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes."  Headlines like this continue to appear and do not seem like something the NOP, or regulators anywhere, would want to ignore.

It's not surprising, then, that there is growing concern within the organic sector worldwide about reports of fraudulent organic products moving in world trade and the need to strengthen the quality assurance chain.  The need to identify and deal with the most common risks was among the issues discussed in May at an international fraud prevention roundtable in Bonn, Germany, attended by traders, certifiers, authorities, and others.  China was included on a short list of countries described as problematic.

Wal-Mart's announcement earlier this year that it is moving aggressively into organic food retailing has helped focus critical media attention on China's organic sector.  A senior USDA economist with organic expertise has been quoted as saying polluted water and air and contaminated soil, among other things, makes it "almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China."  Recent reports of soot from Chinese industry being carried across the Pacific Ocean and dropping on San Francisco seem to support this statement.

China's Impact on Organic Premiums

The availability of cheap organic imports from China and its possible adverse impact on organic price premiums received by U.S. organic farmers is a continuing source of concern.  This has led to suggestions these low prices may be due in part to questions about the quality of inspection and certification in China and the level of compliance with NOP standards.

However China's reliance on well-known international inspection and certification bodies, including those accredited by the NOP, has helped make it a reliable supplier of organic tea, dry beans, rice, vegetables, and soybeans.  It is a major source of organic ingredients in Europe and a new report concludes Chinese companies now supply more than a third of the organic soybeans used by European processors.

Recent warnings of a possible flood of cheap Chinese organic imports flowing into this country seem somewhat overblown.  Although no official numbers are available, the Chinese organic sector is quite small in comparison to organic sectors here and in other organic food importing countries.  A recent report by a German company that organizes international organic trade fairs estimated Chinese organic food exports are growing at a rate of about 5 percent per year and account for about 5 percent of the global organic food market.

The U.S. government is clueless about how much organic food is imported from China.  The Department of Commerce uses hundreds of 10-digit codes to track and report imports.  But there is no code to identify organic products.  As a result both the USDA and the Commerce Department lack information on how much organic food is imported, whether it is soybeans or something else, or its country of origin.  Organic food imports pass through the Food and Drug Administration's failing system that inspects only one percent of food imports.

There was no organic sector in China prior to 1994. The first organic inspection in China, which involved a European certifier and a tea farm and processing plant, did not take place until 1990.  The Nanjing-based Organic Food Develop Center, the first Chinese certifier to receive international attention and support, was established in 1994 by China's State Environmental Protection Agency.  It has had a working relationship with OCIA for 10 years or more.

China's organic sector has government support and is expanding rapidly in northeast and coastal provinces.  The recent announcement in Beijing that China has 12 percent of the world's organically-managed land may well be an inflated figure.  Most of the organic food produced for export is grown on large-scale farms where farmers who know little or nothing about organic farming are organized and managed by private companies or by local governments that control access to state-owned farmland.

Unique Challenges

The challenges faced by international organic inspectors in dealing with a system that is heavily influenced by politics and is much different from the organic farming structure here and in Europe have been documented by Prof. Paul Thiers of Washington State University, a fluent Chinese speaker who researched the evolution of the organic farming sector in China in the 1990s.  His comments emphasize the unusual problems foreign inspectors face.

"While conflict of interest problems on the part of foreign inspectors themselves may be lessened, problems of deception, manipulation and denial of access are more acute given language, cultural, and political barriers," he reported in a talk in Seattle. "Inspectors who are unclear if they are in a village or a township, who do not anticipate the revocation of land tenure contracts, or who do not understand the difference between a mayor and a party secretary are at a distinct disadvantage in anticipating the effects of self-interest and institutional structure on behavior."

NOP auditors checking compliance in China face similar challenges. They must be aware of conflict of interest issues resulting from influence on the organic sector of local governments that run their own organic farms with peasants with little or no knowledge of organic farming.  They must recognize the influence on independent organic companies of local officials who control access to land.  They must assess organic safeguards in a country with the world's highest pesticide use. And they must respond to conditions in a country notorious for failure to embrace international food safety norms and enforce food safety regulations.

U.S. consumers, organic businesses, and organic farmers alike are relying on NOP-accredited certifiers operating in China to fully comply with the provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act and they expect NOP auditors to make certain they do.  In a global economy, the government's duty to protect consumers extends to the performance of all certifiers of organic food imports.  The government owes all of us no less.

Copyright Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service 2000-2007

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