Today’s ‘China Syndrome’ could well be bringing tainted organic products halfway around the world

Posted by
June 4, 2013

With all of the high profile food safety stories coming out of China, many consumers are steering clear of Chinese imports. But what about organic foods coming from China? Is it really organic? Is it even safe?

At the beginning of May, The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, held a hearing to gather “information” on all food imported from China (not just organic), which amounted to a whopping 4.1 billion pounds in 2012,  including 80 percent of the tilapia Americans consumed, and substantial amounts of apple juice, cod, garlic and spinach.

But so-called “organic” imports from China present a host of other issues that include fraudulent organic certification and various unapproved ingredients such as pesticides and dyes.

Testifying at the May hearing were representatives from two consumer groups, Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute and Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, both of whom have been following this issue carefully.

Just last month, the “organic industry watchdogs” at the Cornucopia Institute issued a report titled “Not Good Enough for Pet Food,” a reference to the 2007 Chinese melamine contamination of dog and cat food in the U.S. that resulted in the recall of over sixty million packages and the reported illnesses or deaths of 17,000 pets. (The following year, there was another melamine incident in China, this one involving infant formula that sickened an estimated 300,000 babies there, sent over 12,000 to the hospital and killed six).

“We don’t trust, for good reason, the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food,” said Kastel in the group’s report, “(w)hy, should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”

Kastel also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture  and Food and Drug Administration are only inspecting one to two percent of all the food that enters U.S. ports, and even in that small amount, a “disproportionate number of serious problems” had been found. “Because of the restricted nature of doing business in China, U.S. certifiers are unable to independently inspect farms and assure compliance to the USDA organic food and agriculture standards that are required for export to the U.S.” he  informed the  subcommittee.

The ‘farming out’ of organic inspection

Organic certification of Chinese food works in the same way as in the U.S. or, for that matter, any other country that wishes to use the “organic” name or USDA seal, which is to rely on a third party called an ACA, or accredited certifying agency. “The bigger issue” for Chinese organic imports, according to  Food & Water’s Lovera, is “when you have a product being sold as organic that has a fraudulent certificate,” a situation that has been occurring more often lately, she told me in a phone interview.

Lovera noted that we don’t know how many fraudulent “organic” items may be entering the U.S. as “we would have to do so much more sampling than (USDA) does,” a rate she described as “pretty low.” Organic products, she added, aren’t singled out for any special checking or analysis at the border.

Considering some of the more recent incidents in China, including nearly half of the rice served in restaurants in southern China having been found to be tainted with cadmium, rat meat being passed off as lamb, and thousands of dead pigs found floating in the main river than runs through Beijing, things aren’t exactly great for Chinese consumers either. In fact, Chinese tourists have reportedly emptied shelves in Australia of infant formula, not wanting to chance it with what’s being sold in their own country.

Interestingly, the recent sale of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to a Chinese firm brought to light the flip side of food safety issues with the United States allowing hog feed to be laced with a controversial additive called ractopamine, which is a kind of steroid for pigs. This FDA-approved drug is banned in over 160 countries, including China, and with the possibility of Smithfield becoming a Chinese property last year, the company “quietly weaned the first of its pigs off” the drug in 2012, according to Reuters.

So what’s an organic-conscious consumer to do? What Lovera advises is that where agricultural commodities are concerned, there’s no place like home. “We do tell people to look (at) where their food is coming from,” she said. And “setting food safety aside, in terms of our economy, the closer you can get to home the better.

“At this point there are very few things that can only be produced in China,” she said, “…check the country of origin and look for U.S. organic food.”