When you buy food with a "USDA organic" label, do you know what you're getting? Now is a good time to ask such a question, as the USDA just announced Monday it was putting 15 out of 30 federally accredited organic certifiers they audited on probation, allowing them 12 months to make corrections or lose their accreditation. At the heart of the audit for several certifiers were imported foods and ingredients from other countries, including China.
Chinese imports have had a bad year in the news, making headlines for contaminated pet food, toxic toys, and recently, certified organic ginger contaminated with levels of a pesticide called aldicarb that can cause nausea, headaches and blurred vision even at low levels. The ginger, sold under the 365 label at Whole Foods Market, contained a level of aldicarb not even permissible for conventional ginger, let alone organics. Whole Foods immediately pulled the product from its shelves.
Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers Association, emphasizes that most organic farmers "play by the rules." They believe in organic principles and thereby comply with organic standards. Unfortunately, Congress' pitifully inadequate funding for enforcement, including for organic imports from countries like China, "guarantees it'll be easy for unscrupulous players to cheat, and that's obviously what's going on here."
Farms that produce USDA-certified organic food are not personally inspected by anyone from the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). As a small and underfunded agency within the USDA (it has fewer than a dozen employees), NOP relies on what it calls Accredited Certifying Agencies -- ACAs -- to do the legwork. The ACAs take responsibility for ensuring that any farm or processor bearing the organic label meets the strict requirements for certification.
Since the Chinese government does not allow foreigners to inspect Chinese farms, an extra step is involved for oversight of organics from China: Chinese companies, which are allowed to inspect Chinese farms, subcontract with foreign ACAs. Cummins believes "the safest course of action is ... to say we won't certify imports from China because their law won't allow inspections."
For Americans who shop at the growing number of farmers markets springing up around the country, the status of organics from China -- or even organics from faraway U.S. states -- may be irrelevant. Just as the hippies who founded the movement intended, ethical eating extends beyond pesticide-free food for these shoppers, some of whom call themselves locavores, meaning "one who eats food produced locally." They wish to support small farmers and to ensure their food was produced in an environmentally friendly manner by workers who were treated well and paid fairly.
And not matter how strict a law may be, there will always be those who game the system. Even if a Chinese inspector notices illegal pesticide use, he or she might feel pressured to stay silent, says Dr. Robert E. Hegel, professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. "Everybody there is so proud of increased production that few people ask much about the farmer's production methods," says Hegel. "And there's no 'organic' food tradition in China." According to Hegel, in China "everything was just 'food' and it was, until the 1950s, mostly 'organic' by our contemporary definitions -- fertilized with human and animal waste, compost ... and ashes."
But for an American looking for high-quality organics, the number one way to ensure that's what you're getting is to buy directly from the farmer. Farmers markets or CSAs (community supported agriculture -- arrangements in which consumers buy a share in a farm and receive weekly boxes of produce) are excellent ways to go as you can often meet the farmer or visit the farm yourself. Even if you can't make the trip to the farm personally, typically a farmers market sets rules around what is and is not permitted at the market (for example, only allowing produce grown within the state), and a market manager visits each farm to guarantee adherence to the policy.
The problem with fraudulent Chinese organics merely drives home the larger problem that sustainable and ethical eating is about forming relationships, and trying to fit it into the global, industrialized mold of the rest of our food system does not work. For example, the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based watchdog agency, reports on American dairies Horizon and Aurora, which operate organic factory farms milking thousands of cows each. Over the past year, the USDA finally penalized Aurora, supplier of private label milk to Wal-Mart, Safeway and Costco, for violating organic standards.
While the National Organic Program is poorly funded, perhaps it would be more effective if the USDA staffed it with people who felt strongly about organics. Cummins mentioned a North Carolina organic activist and farmer who suggested eating at Nora's, a well-known Washington, D.C., organic restaurant, to NOP staff. He was shocked when they responded enthusiastically that they would love to try it because they had hardly ever eaten organic food before.
Because organics (and ethical eating in general) is ultimately about values and personal relationships, Cummins believes the most important next step is establishing a peer review panel, as called for by law, "so that respected members of the organic community can monitor and police violations of organic standards on the part of producers, importers and certifiers." The USDA acknowledges the requirement of a peer review panel by law but has yet to implement it.
Because knowledgeable members of the organic community who share the consumers' values will be able to look out for their interests, consumers can feel more confident in the organics they buy from the store with a peer review panel in place. Store-bought organics might not be equal to buying directly from a farmer, but in today's hectic world, when you can't make it out to a farm or a farmers market, we need to make sure they are a close second.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. Her first book, about food politics, is due out in June 2009.