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U.S. Drops Inspector of Food in China"Serious questions about certification in China have been raised by the United States Agriculture Department."
By: William Neuman & David Barboza
Published: June 13, 2010
Article from New York Times
Organic food from China, like tea and frozen broccoli, has increasingly found its way onto American store shelves, typically emblazoned with the green “U.S.D.A. organic” seal also found on food grown in this country.
The federal certification, the backbone of the organics industry, is aimed at assuring consumers that farmers and food manufacturers have passed tough, independent inspections — even half a world away.
Now serious questions about certification in China have been raised by the United States Agriculture Department. 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, to be formally announced on Monday, 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.
Whole Foods Market, the nation’s leading organic retailer, has used Chinese organics, including those from association-inspected producers, in many of its store brand products, including frozen vegetables, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and bottled teas.
But the number of those products has been shrinking, in part because of consumer worries about their credentials as organics. Two years ago, the company said, it sold about 30 private label items with organic ingredients from China; by the end of this year, it will stock only two: shelled and unshelled frozen edamame soybeans.
“Over the years, we’ve gotten a lot of critical feedback from customers on products that we source from China,” said Errol Schweizer, Whole Foods’ senior global grocery coordinator.
Whole Foods said it had conducted its own audits of its Chinese suppliers and had tested their products for contaminants and was confident that edamame soybeans remained of high quality and a good value. The retailer said it had also found some similar products from places besides China at better prices.
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 percent, 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,” Mr. McEvoy said.
Amanda Brewster, interim executive director of the association, declined to discuss its activities or the enforcement action.
But Jeff See, who was executive director of the O.C.I.A., said in an interview in March that the group began shutting its China operations late last year because of the regulatory pressure and financial difficulties. On May 28, the association signed a settlement agreement with the department, barring it from operating in China for at least a year.
O.C.I.A. is a nonprofit organization founded by American farmers in the 1980s. It remains one of the most active certifiers licensed by the department’s organic program. Today, according to department data, it inspects more than 1,800 operations in 11 countries, mostly in the United States, Canada and Latin America.
That does not include the 223 operations that the association certified in China last year, a third of all department-approved producers there, according to department data.
In China, the O.C.I.A. joined forces with the Organic Food Development Corporation, an agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The association kept a small staff — one or three people in Nanjing — while inspectors from the Chinese agency went out to farms and factories. Their findings were translated into English and sent to O.C.I.A. headquarters in Nebraska, where staff members reviewed the material and made the final decisions on certification.
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.
Mr. See, the former association director, said that if the group had cut its ties to the Chinese agency and kept working in China independently, it would have had to comply with a requirement that foreign companies maintain large reserves in a Chinese bank, money the group did not have.
(Since the interview, Mr. See has left the association. He said last week that a confidentiality agreement prevented him from further discussing his former employer’s activities.)
Zhou Zejiang, a senior adviser to the American group’s Chinese partner, said his agency was affiliated with the Chinese government but was largely independent. Even so, he said, the department’s objections could have been resolved by requiring O.C.I.A. to use other inspectors in visits to farms or processors directly managed by the state.
Many producers that had been screened by the association were transferred to two certifiers based in Europe, Ecocert and the Institute for Marketecology.
Ding Wei, the director of the Institute for Marketecology’s office in Nanjing, said it had no ties to the Chinese government but sometimes encountered interference from local government officials during inspection visits.
“Each time they accompany us visiting the farm, they will raise lots of questions and they will watch closely when you are writing your report and try to find loopholes,” Mr. Ding said. But he added, “We are absolutely keeping our work independent.”