June 14/New York/The International Herald Tribune -- 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 the United States.
The U.S. 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture. 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 agency also plans to send an audit team to China this year to do a broad review of the certification process.
U.S. 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 U.S. market. Anticipating the department's action, the group shut most of its operations last year.
The ban is likely to aggravate U.S. consumer worries about organic food from a country that many associate with food safety scandals and lax regulation, with past problems involving things like contaminated milk and toys coated in lead paint.
Whole Foods Market, a leading organics retailer in the U.S., 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.
However, 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 store-brand 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 U.S. imports farm products worth $3 billion a year from China. Trade data do 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 organics producers certified under Agriculture Department rules, which rose more than 200%, to 669 last year, from 216 in 2008.
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 U.S. rules, ranging from a ban on most pesticides to requirements that organic and nonorganic foods be kept apart in processing plants.
However, in an audit of O.C.I.A.'s operations in China, department investigators found at least 10 state-managed farms or factories with potential conflicts 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 whether the auditors had visited those operations to see whether 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,'' McEvoy said.
Amanda Brewster, interim executive director of the association, declined to discuss its activities or the enforcement action.
However, Jeff See, who was executive director of the O.C.I.A., said in an interview in March that the group had begun 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 that barred 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. According to department data, it inspects more than 1,800 operations in 11 countries, mostly in the U.S., 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 Corp., an agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection. The association kept a small staff -- one to 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 had 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.
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.
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.
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,'' Ding said, adding, ''We are absolutely keeping our work independent.''
From the June 15, 2010, Prepared Foods' Daily News
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