US drops inspector of organic food in China

June 16, 2010

According to The New York Times, serious questions about organic certification in China have been raised by the United States Agriculture Department (USDA). The agency, which uses private groups to conduct most organic inspections worldwide, has banned a leading American inspector from operating in China because of a conflict of interest that strikes at the heart of the organics’ guarantee. The federal agency also plans to send an audit team to China this year to broadly review the certification process.

Federal officials say the banned inspector, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities. The group, based in Nebraska and known by the initials O.C.I.A., has for years been one of the leading inspectors of Chinese organics for the United States market. Anticipating the department’s action, the group shut most of its operations last year.

The ban is likely to propel consumer worries about organic food from a country that many associate with food safety scandals and lax regulation, involving things like contaminated milk and toys coated in lead paint.

The United States imports $3 billion a year in farm products from China. Trade data does not single out organic farm products, which are believed to account for a small but growing portion of the total. The upward trend can be seen in the number of Chinese organic producers certified under Agriculture Department rules, which rose more than 200%, to 669 last year, from 216 in 2008. China is one of the biggest exporters of agricultural products to the United States.

The inspection process, known as certification, is meant to guarantee that an independent eye has scrutinized farming and food processing to make sure they meet federal rules ranging from a ban on most pesticides to requirements that organic and nonorganic foods be kept apart in processing plants.

But in an audit of O.C.I.A.’s operations in China, department investigators found at least 10 state-managed farms or factories that posed a potential conflict of interest, said Miles V. McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the agency’s National Organic Program. He did not know how large the operations were or what they produced, and it was not clear if the auditors had visited those operations to see if violations of organic standards had been overlooked. “We’re serious about enforcing the organic standards across the board, and we’ll be doing more work in China and other countries to assure the integrity of organic products,” said McEvoy.

NY Times article