Is Your Organic Food Really Organic?
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."
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.