There are articles all over the Internet right now about “fake organic” food from China. Wanting to keep you informed, I read through many of them. The problem was, they all seemed to quote other sources and reading on, I found that these sources quoted other sources and so on. There didn’t seem to be any credible first-hand sources for this information. Was this all just rumor run rampant, as Whole Foods claims?

Whole Foods has been accused of selling these “fake organic” foods from China but they claim that “any product sold as organic in the US, regardless of where it’s grown, must be certified to the USDA’s National Organic Program standard by a USDA-accredited certifier.”

Well, I wanted to know more about this USDA certification of imported organics. It took quite a bit of digging but what I eventually found was more disturbing than any of those copycat articles.

I found frightening information about all food from China, frightening lack of regulation concerning organic food from China, and, worst of all, shocking information about our National Organic Program (NOP).

Before I go on, I want to reassure you about your options. You don’t have to break the bank buying all of your foods organic. Read which foods are commonly pesticide-ridden and those that usually aren’t in How to Buy Organic. I’ll tell you about the “beyond organic” movement that has arisen in response to NOP problems. Check out this source here to learn more, What is Beyond Organic?

Chinese Food Safety Issues

First of all, I was surprised to learn how much food the US imports from China: China is the third-largest source of food imports according to a 2009 report by the Economic Research Service (ERS). For example, 60 percent of our apple juice and over half of the garlic we use in the US is from China. The ERS claims that food safety is a critical issue with Chinese imports but that “there are no simple solutions to addressing the safety hazards since they appear to occur in many different types of foods at all links in the supply chain.”

Reading through the USDA article “Imports From China and Food Safety Issues” is alarming. The FDA regularly refuses shipments from China because of filth, unsafe additives, veterinary drug residues and mislabeling. Filth violations and unsafe additives are the most common violations in Chinese imports and reading what constitutes “filth” is only recommended to those with strong stomachs.

What this report did make evident is that pollution in China is so prevalent that even more stringent regulation is unlikely to make great improvements in food quality there. The ERS reports that banned agricultural chemicals are still used and even when they’re not–they still exist in the soil and water. Many farms are in industrial regions where air, water and soil pollution is concentrated, especially in terms of cadmium and lead levels. Animal and human waste spoil the water, many workers don’t have hygiene awareness and fraudulent record-keeping is common.

More information about pollution in China can be found in the Stanford Journal of Internation Law ”Is ‘USDA Organic’ a Seal of Deceit?” by Chenglin Liu (print).

Is “USDA Organic” a Seal of Deceit? covers the pitfalls of USDA Certified Organics Produced in the United States, China and Beyond. This article was originally published in the summer 2011 issue of Stanford Journal of International Law and is available for a fee on many scholarly studies websites. To avoid subscription prices, you can read this article via your local or statewide library. Based upon court cases and the evidence presented in them, this white paper was my most disturbing find.

In terms of pollution, author and law professor Chenglin Liu reports that only five percent of household sewage and 17 percent of industrial sewage in China is properly treated.  A Chinese government study found that 90 percent of Chinese groundwater is polluted. China is the world’s biggest user of chemical fertilizers and one of the largest producers and users of pesticides. Worse of all, Chinese farmers traditionally did use organic methods. When farmlands were socialized in the 1960′s, they were forced to use new farming techniques, fertilizers and pesticides by the Chinese government. After decades of such heavy use of agricultural chemicals, soil quality has decreased to the point that USDA economist Fred Gales claims that it is “almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China.”

Organic Certification in China

I also took a look at the 2010 USDA Foreign Agriculture Report, an organic report on China. The authors of this report surmise that because of increasing demand within China and worldwide, within 10 years, China may “become the fourth largest organic market in the world.” They report that food safety issues in China make organics a profitable market. Consumers are willing to pay 300 percent more for organic asparagus, 10 times more for organic beef, and generally, five to 10 times more for all organic vegetables. This kind of profit drives unscrupulous practices.

Organic certification in China is wildly diversified. The Chinese Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC) is supposedly in charge but only certifies about 30 percent of organic products. The rest are certified through third parties, private firms, individual inspectors and international firms. As of 2010, the authors report that there is no agreement between China and the US as what constitutes organic. They also report that organic standards are poorly enforced in China, that no clear authority exists, that mislabeling is common and that many producers use expired organic labels. Some organic companies don’t even produce their own food but subcontract to others. Some companies label their goods as organic when only a tiny portion of their produce is grown organically.

Importing Practices

Professor Liu reports that there are three ways that imported foods can be sold as organic in the US. 1) Foods can be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent, either US-based or foreign-based; 2) foods may be stamped with the USDA seal if the US has a recognition agreement with that country, an agreement that the country’s own certifying agents can use this seal because they follow US organic regulations; 3) equivalency agreements exist through which the US and other countries agree that their organic standards are equivalent.

We don’t have an equivalency agreement or a recognition agreement with China so technically, Whole Foods is right: organic food from China must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifier. But here’s the rub. There aren’t enough US certifiers to go around, only about 94 exist. The USDA certifies agents in China to certify farms and other producers. In 2007, an audit of two farms and four certifiers in China found many issues of noncompliance. For example, the certifiers had little experience with organic certification stipulations, often didn’t even understand them, and in once case, a German-based certifying company in China didn’t even provide the NOP organic standards to applying agents.

Also in 2007, the USDA realized that the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) had been using employees from the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. It would be in their best interest to push organic certification no matter what actual practices were taking place. The OCIA certifies 1800 organic operations in 11 countries, 233 in China. It took three years for the USDA to take action and suspend OCIA for one year, and they didn’t tell the American public until 2010.

Professor Liu finds Whole Food’s rebuttal ridiculous because it claims equivalency in organic standards and certification whether the food is from US or beyond. Liu points out that in one instance, the USDA granted conditional accreditations to certifiers based only on paperwork and didn’t check to see that they complied with conditions set forth for seven years.  NOP regulations only stipulate a once-yearly check on farms and Liu reports that China’s government agencies can’t even enforce their own laws, never mind that of the US.

Corruption in China

Why did China keep having problems with tainted milk and products made with this milk? Because local governments cover up such scandals as a matter of course. These local governments are closely tied to food manufacturers and it is in their best interest economically to boost manufacturing any way they can. The court system also has ties with food manufacturers reports Liu, and the news media is controlled by the Chinese government. Bribes for licenses are common and ethics aren’t very strong in the food industry in China. The use of additives to enhance look and taste, for instance, rule over health concerns.

Farmers in China don’t voluntarily choose to grow organic: they’re ordered to. Village leaders are in charge of farm cooperatives and are the gatekeepers for USDA certifying agents. An agent might be shown a sampling of organic farming rather than all the practices within the cooperative and many farmers reported that that didn’t know what organic meant or what they were supposed to do. Local officials commonly disrupt, delay or circumvent certifier’s tours of these farms.

Fraudulent labeling is very common in Chinese food manufacturing and because so many departments and agencies are involved in this chain, there are plenty of ways to duck under the radar. For two years, Jiahe products were carried on Carrefour, Wal-Mart and other grocery chain shelves even though they weren’t verified to be free of pesticides.

In terms of corruption, Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and Thailand all rank worse than China. Yet these countries are the top ten suppliers of fruits and vegetables to the US reports Liu.  Growing demand for organic food drives imports. Liu reports that 40 percent of the organic food consumed in the US is imported from over 100 other countries.

Fake Organic in the US?

Then there’s the National Organic Program. The US certainly isn’t immune to corruption. The NOP was instituted because small farmers thought regulation would protect them. Instead, as the organic industry has been co-opted by mega-corporations, loopholes in organic standards and regulations become cavernous.

Those small farms? They’ve been gobbled up by big business and organic practices become industrial organic practices. Kellogg now owns Bear Naked and Kashi, Heinz and Hein own 19 organic brands. Coca-Cola, Con-Agra, General Mills, Kraft, and Mars M&M own most of the market. Michael Pollan reports that “five giant farms control fully one-half of the $400 million organic produce market in California.” To see who owns your favorite organic brand, check out this info graphic,  Organic Sells Out to Mega Corporations.

The truth is, there is no perfect standard.  But in general, organic foods are typically of higher quality than conventional.  Even then, I would recommend not buying foods from China whether it’s organic or not.  Support companies who are willing to show you there production methods and be completely transparent like Beyond Organic.  I also recommend shopping at your local farmers market and asking them how they produce their foods.  Buying local or from a single owned organic company is your safest bet when buying any foods including organic.

Lessons Learned

  • Chinese imports are a common part of US food supply.
  • Environmental pollution in China makes any food grown there hazardous or nutrient-deplete.
  • Organic regulation of Chinese foods is a joke.
  • Corruption is common in many of the countries that contribute to US food sources, organic and otherwise.
  • Organic regulation in the US has been severely compromised by corporate interests.
  • It’s better to know the person that provides your food than rely on organic certifications.

 Sources

Peoples Republic of China: Organics Report, October 26, 2010

“Is “USDA Organic” a Seal of deceit? The Pitfalls of USDA Certified Organics Produced in the United States, China and Beyond.

USDA.gov – Imports From China and Food Safety Issues

The Organic Watergate—White Paper: Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program

www.nytimes.com Michael Pollan: Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex