by Marion Nestle
Jun 14 2010

USDA fires certifier of Chinese organics: conflicts of interest

In a move that should bring cheer to anyone who cares about the integrity of organic certification, the USDA has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from certifying foods from China as organic.  According to the accounts in today’s New York Times and the USDA’s enforcement announcement, OCIA used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities.

Oops.  This is sending the fox out to guard the chickens (organic, hopefully).  The Chinese government has a vested interest in selling certified organic foods and can only be expected to be lenient in enforcing rules for organic production.

Honest, reliable, consistent inspection is the cornerstone of consumer trust in organics.  If producers aren’t following the rules to the letter (and, we wish, the spirit), why would anyone be willing to pay higher prices for organics?  Since it’s impossible to prove that organics are more nutritious than conventional foods, the entire system rests on trust.  And the value of trust rests with the inspectors.

Advocates of organics have been worried for ages about the credibility of organic foods from China and whether cheap organics produced according to high standards.  Now we know, and the answer is not pretty.  With respect to OCIA’s arrangement with Chinese government inspector, the New York Times explains:

The department objected to the arrangement after a 2007 audit, saying the partnership violated a rule barring certifiers from reviewing operations in which they held a commercial interest.  The department moved to revoke the association’s accreditation and the group filed an appeal. The department’s disciplinary process is conducted in secret, and negotiations often drag on. In O.C.I.A.’s case, it took nearly three years to resolve.

This cozy arrangement has been going on for at least the last three years?

It’s good that USDA is taking this on now.

But USDA really needs to take a hard look at conflicts of interest in organic certification, domestic as well as foreign.  Some USDA-authorized certifying agencies are much more lenient than others.  Witness: certification of fish and pet food as organic, despite the lack of final rules for such certification.  Some certifying agencies manage to find ways to do this; others refuse.

The organic industry ought to be pushing USDA as hard as it can to establish and enforce the highest possible standards for organic certification.  I’m looking forward to reading what the Organic Trade Association—and OCIA—have to say about all this.

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  • Sheila

    Given China’s well-documented history of selling tainted food to the world, including food for our most vulnerable members (infants and pets), I am not trusting ANY food “certification” they put out. This very point is my biggest motivation for buying everything possible from local producers. There is no “cheaper price” that would be worth poisoning my baby, my pets, or anybody else.

  • Anthro

    My first reaction is that I haven’t bought any organic food produced in China, but then when I thought about it, I realized I had no reason to be sure about that. Another thing to check for, alas. I’m with Sheila and do buy local (regional) as much as possible. I will ask Whole Foods and the Co-op is they stock foods from China.

    Thanks as ever for this timely alert.

  • China+organic food=oxymoron in my book. Anthro’s wonder makes me wonder too though living in Portland, Oregon, where all the emphasis is on LOCAL makes it unlikely any Chinese food would be here.

    Will be looking for more about this!

  • I just read the comments. I just want to say, we should all be reading labels. A few years ago, I realized that the organic black beans I was buying at Trader Joes, said “product of china” on them. This was right after the melamine scare.

    I just read an article not too long ago that Whole Foods Generic brand is full of chinese produce.

    Please read your labels! Unfortunately, we won’t be able to know what is in most packaged food, but single ingredient foods are labeled now.

    What I eat when I’m not home scares me.

  • Cathy Richards

    Certainly we have good documented reasons to be suspicious of food from China. However, that doesn’t guarantee that US Inspectors will all be immune to …. hmmm, shall I say “nefarious influences” to provide false certification.

    Let’s remember that two men ultimately deemed by China’s government to be responsible for the melamine scandal have been given death sentences (and a third was given life in prison). That’s a stronger incentive to be honest than any punishment the US (or Canada, where I live) could provide.

    I’m not an expert in anthropology but this story is making me think of racism or bigotry. Rather than an us vs. them point of view I would rather discuss this from a local food point of view, and systems we have theoretical control over. But we all know that some of our officials and inspectors have acted very selfishly and that sloppy work and ignored problems have resulted in illness and deaths. Glass houses, stones — there’s a lesson here.