Of all the organic foods on the market, fresh produce has the longest track record, making it one of the most trusted by consumers for living up to its organic billing. But cracks in that core consumer faith may be starting to appear as more imported organic produce — particularly from China — enters the North American market.
While there's no firm record of abuses, concern over whether overseas growers of organic produce are adhering to rigid agricultural standards has long simmered in some of the more vigilant quarters of the organic community. In recent weeks, however, concerns about lax oversight and unsafe practices in conventional Chinese agriculture and food production have become more pronounced, following extensive media coverage of the Chinese wheat gluten that, when used as a bulk ingredient by U.S. pet food manufacturers, contaminated more than 100 brands and killed more than 4,000 U.S. pets.
For its part, the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the National Organic Program and enforces standards for certified organic foods, says there is oversight to ensure imported organics meet the accepted definition of organic. But organic advocacy groups, concerned about an erosion of organic standards in general, express particular concern about imports.
Growing North American demand, they say, is straining domestic supplies and prompting some retailers to try to grab their share by competing on price. Increasingly, they're looking to foreign producers, which are often able to produce at a lower cost, but possibly at the expense of following rigid organic production guidelines. At the same time, they argue, AMS lacks the funding and resources to reliably validate that imported organic foods conform to U.S. organic labeling standards.
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, a Finland, Minn., group that advocates for rigid interpretations of organic, claims AMS budgets just $2 million annually to enforce U.S. organic standards that took effect in 2002. Add in fragmented supply chains, lax regulatory procedures in exporting countries and questionable credentials of certification agencies, and there's cause for concern, according to Cummins. Countries with emerging economies, he said, pose a worry because their track records on safe food production across the board are not strong.
“There's growing evidence that China, for instance, has a very toxic agricultural environment,” he said. “DDT is all over in the soil there, and there's not much testing that's done for it. Plus, it appears to be against the law for any non-Chinese company to inspect a Chinese farm. Certification agencies the USDA hires have to partner with Chinese companies that do the certifying. When USDA says it accepts Chinese standards as equivalent, what that means is that in the overall scope of trade it's expedient to say this.”
The ongoing problems in China, it should be emphasized, surfaced in conventional agriculture and food production operations. And AMS stands by its procedures for ensuring all imported produce carrying an organic designation meets applicable production and handling requirements. Joan Shaffer, an AMS spokesperson, said producers in all countries, China and other emerging sources included, are treated the same. AMS auditors, she added, are now scheduling routine on-site inspections of NOP-accredited certifiers operating in China to ensure they're compliant.
That's also the view of the Organic Trade Association, the Greenfield, Mass.-based group that promotes North American organic goods trade.
“We're comfortable with imported organic produce,” said OTA spokesperson Barbara Haumann. “You can't sell organic produce in the U.S. unless there's a paper trail. Products have to be accredited by a USDA-certified agency. There are systems in place, and there definitely is oversight.”
That's the message retailers like Shaw's Supermarkets Inc., West Bridgewater, Mass., are sending to customers. On its website, Shaw's notes that “whether grown in the United States or sourced from other countries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled ‘organic’ must meet.”
Similarly, CF Fresh, a Sedro Woolley, Wash.-based organics supplier, says on its website that all organic products sold in the United States are certified by agencies recognized by USDA. “CF Fresh only imports organic products certified by internationally respected agencies with USDA accreditation,” the company says.
Also, many popular organic items — bananas and coffee, for example — lack domestic suppliers. And year-round demand for all manner of organic fruits and vegetables necessitates importing items when they are out of season in North America.
Yet concern over organic imports and foreign oversight reflects a larger, related set of concerns shared by many in the organic trade — that the industry's breakneck growth may ultimately lead to eroded standards. Some argue that the bolder movement of large retailers into organic, notably Wal-Mart, may serve to dilute organic standards by forcing price-pressured suppliers to cut both costs and corners in production.
The possibility worries groups like the Organic Farming Research Foundation, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based group that represents organic producer interests. Executive director Bob Scowcroft said domestic producers who adhere to strict production guidelines — not to mention the broad organic foods movement — stand to lose if large sellers of organic foster a climate where organic production standards are viewed in shades of gray.
Although he doesn't see an imminent flood of imported organic entering the North American market, Scowcroft said it's safe to assume foreign organic production will increase in coming years. Even if foreign producers meet organic standards, a larger issue must be considered: whether the ramping up of an energy-intensive international trade in organics erodes the perception of environmentally friendly, sustainable agriculture.
Both Scowcroft and OTA's Cummins said many of the potential issues surrounding imported organic produce could be addressed by mandatory Country Of Origin Labeling, particularly of fresh produce. If all products were labeled as to origin, consumers would be able to make more informed choices. They could decide whether cheaper imports are worth the risk of possibly buying products of questionable origin, or whether domestic or locally grown organic might offer a better value.
“I don't think many organic consumers would buy something imported from China if it was a dime cheaper than something grown here,” Cummins said. “But as it stands now, there's no possibility for Country Of Origin Labeling until 2008.”