Seal of Disapproval

Concerns Arise Over China-Sourced Food Labeled USDA Organic
© William Duke

Beyond images of glowing whole grains and sun-kissed farm fields, it’s the green and white "USDA Organic" seal that attracts discriminating shoppers. But they may not notice the message on the back, hidden in small print, reading "Product of China." The demand for organics is estimated to reach upwards of $5 billion a year, according to The World of Organic Agriculture: Statistics and Emerging Trends 2008 (Earthscan Publications). But, despite the popularity and accessibility of organics, consumers and food safety groups have expressed concern about the legitimacy of foreign imports, and, more importantly, who is supervising the certification and accreditation process established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In recent years, China has come under scrutiny for several high-profile contamination incidences, including antifreeze in toothpaste, melamine in dog food and lead-coated children’s toys. And China’s widespread toxic air and polluted water—particularly from coal plants—have done little to boost consumer confidence. Further, Chinese farmers who grow conventional, non-organic crops routinely apply agricultural sludge to fertilize their fields. Also known as "night soil," the sewer sludge contains human excrement, heavy and toxic metals, synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and other components.

While sludge or "biosolids," as the wastewater treatment industry prefers it be called, is permitted for use under conventional farming regulations in both the U.S. and China, it is expressly prohibited under regulations set by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), which allowed the USDA to create regulations to define the term "organic" and establish standards for monitoring and certifying foods under this label.

Under the NOP, "organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation" and ensures that animals raised for livestock are free from antibiotics and growth hormones.

Cracks in the System

Any foreign or domestic producer that wants to sell food as organic is held to USDA standards, and processors must be certified by one of 98 USDA-approved agencies. Since 2002, the NOP has had an accreditation program that provides oversight of third-party certifying agents. While the USDA itself does not inspect imported foods, it relies on its list of 44 foreign accredited agencies. Currently, there are five international certifying agencies operating in China, although none are based in the country, according to Billy Cox, director of public affairs for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The primary reason: The Chinese government does not permit foreigners to inspect the country’s farms.

So, how can goods sourced from China still earn organic certification?

Many of the 44 foreign certifiers accredited by the NOP "are active in China and presumably cooperate with the U.S.-based accredited certifying agents working there," according to Organic Food Consultant Roger Blobaum in a 2007 Organic Broadcaster article.

"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," writes Blobaum.

Many organic supporters fear that this subcontracting process has led to a breakdown in the certification of foreign organics, especially in light of contamination incidents found under big organic companies.

"The consumer relies on the organic label to stand for something because you can’t personally go to the source of every item that you’re eating," says Organic, Inc. (Harcourt) author Samuel Fromartz. "Essentially, there are two questions: Are the regulations good enough that the consumer can be happy with the label? And, secondly, are the producers actually following the regulations?"

Products that do not comply with USDA regulations have still been marketed to consumers as organic. In July 2008, an investigation by reporters at WJLA, an ABC news affiliate in Washington, D.C., found traces of aldicarb, a highly toxic and restricted insecticide in organic ginger that was sold under natural grocery Whole Foods" "365 Organic" label. The ginger, imported from China, was certified by one of the largest agencies, Quality Assurance International (QAI), which also certifies many other organic vegetables for Whole Foods. Whole Foods responded to the findings by immediately pulling the product from store shelves and released a statement that the ginger was grown in China, according to the news report.

"Since the Chinese government does not permit foreigners to inspect their farms, QAI subcontracts the actual inspections to Chinese nationals," writes Joseph D. Rosen, professor emeritus of food toxicology at Rutgers University and an advisor to the American Council on Science and Health.

The WJLA organics series also reported that some of the organic frozen foods under Whole Foods" "365 Organic" label, while none contained traces of pesticides, could be misleading to consumers because they were sourced from other countries. The Whole Foods" frozen "California Blend," for example, used vegetables grown in China according to the package. It was subsequently relabeled "California Style" to "prevent misleading shoppers," according to the WJLA investigation.

Currently, Whole Foods sources less than 20 of its store label products from China, according to Libba Letton, a media relations spokesperson for the company. Although Whole Foods does not have a country of origin list because of changes in growing patterns and market availability, Letton suggests that the company has been labeling sourcing information since its start and upholds its mission "to be as transparent as possible."

During an audit review process in August 2008, the NOP announced that 15 of the 30 accredited organic certifiers it inspected failed the auditing process and had a year to comply with corrective actions or lose their accreditation. Violations noted in the audit included Chinese imports certified by ECOCERT, an organic certifier based in France.

A Call for Peer Review

With more companies relying on imports from China, the auditing process of certifiers is becoming increasingly important to reduce cases of fraudulent activity and to guarantee that agencies continue to comply with USDA standards.

One critic of USDA organic certification is the Wisconsin-based farm advocacy group The Cornucopia Institute. In its July 2009 report "Behind the Bean: The Heroes and Charlatans of the Natural and Organic Soy Food Industry," the institute writes, "When the USDA audited certifiers in all of China, for the first time in August 2007, they scrutinized four certifying agents but visited only two farms in China. They found multiple noncompliances of the federal organic standards."

Included in these noncompliances wer

e "the failure of one certifying agent to hire Chinese inspectors that are adequately familiar with the USDA organic standards, and the failure by another organic certifying agent to provide a written and translated copy of the USDA organic standards to all clients applying for certification," according to the Institute’s report.

In response to this 2007 visit to China, Cox of the USDA responded, "The NOP directed our auditing body, the AMS Livestock and Seed Programs" Audit, Review, and Compliance Branch, to include China in the scope of their scheduled accreditation in onsite audits of five major certifiers because of the amount of work those agents were doing in China.

"Also, earlier this summer the NOP sent a team to China to present information on NOP standards and compliance activities as a part of a major industry event," says Cox. "NOP auditors will return to China within the next year or so…to evaluate the effectiveness of proposed corrective actions to any noncompliances identified during the initial onsite review."

Further, Cox says that the NOP has revoked accreditation of certifying agents "who act improperly in their responsibilities as a certifying agent," and, if any products are found to be in violation of NOP standards, the agency is subject to civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.

"The NOP is also preparing training, to be presented both online and in person, for certifying agents in the U.S. and in foreign countries, including China," adds Cox, in response to criticism over noncompliance involving knowledge and language gaps between certifying agents and on-site inspectors.

Improving Food Safety

Increased visits to China by NOP auditors and possible testing of pesticide residue may be steps toward greater organic assurance, but many consumer advocacy groups want to see greater accountability among certifying agents. A Peer Review Panel (PRP) is one method currently being considered to provide oversight of the NOP accreditation program and its certifying agents.

Lynn Coody, principal consultant of Organic Agsystems Consulting, is a proponent of a PRP.

"The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has made multiple recommendations on how a PRP should be organized, what should be its authority, and procedures for managing it. Many public commentators support the formation of a PRP too," says Coody. "However, the NOP has not chosen to establish the PRP, citing problems with funding and some issues related to the regulations related to committees within the federal government."

The NOSB, a 15-member advisory board that assists the Secretary of Agriculture in shaping organic production standards, issued a formal recommendation in May 2009 for the implementation of peer review process for certifying agents.

"We understand the financial constrictions," states the recommendation. "However we feel strongly that some form of overview of the NOP accreditation system by the NOSB or delegated body is essential and overdue."

While advocates of a PRP wait for further action, Mark Kastel, cofounder of The Cornucopia Institute, suggests that consumers have a more immediate option available to them when it comes to buying safe food.

"For people who are really concerned about the safety and quality of their food they are best served to choose domestically produced products," said Kastel. "Then, of course, consumers who really want to subscribe to the true meaning of organics, in terms of environmental protection and economic justice for family farmers, will want to eat as locally as possible.That’s the spirit of organics."

ALEXANDRA GROSS is a journalist specializing in wellness, food and agriculture issues.