Three years ago, China ranked almost last on the list of 50 countries with the most acreage devoted to organic farming. It now ranks fifth.
The meteoric rise has come at a price. The recent outcry over tainted wheat gluten found in pet food suspected of sickening and killing pets turned a harsh spotlight on China's food production system.
Part of the problem is the crushing demand for organic ingredients from U.S. manufacturers. While there are no figures yet available detailing the amount of organic foodstuffs specifically coming from China, Americans consume nearly 260 pounds of imported foods every year, and research shows only 1.3% of imports are inspected during that time. An unknown quantity is sourced from China.
Billy Cox, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that foods and commodity crops certified organic are subject to the U.S. regulations developed under the National Organic Program.
“They have to have the same standards for their organic products that the U.S. producers have,” he said. “There's no change, whether you're a Chinese producer or an American producer. The standards are the same.”
Nevertheless, shipments of any sort of food are banned on a regular basis: excessive antibiotic or pesticide residues on Chinese produce, shrimp and honey; malachite green, a carcinogen, found in seafood; and most recently, chemically tainted wheat gluten.
Trade experts say China must change its practices if it is to successfully compete in world markets. The country's reputation for pesticides and chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and pollution are well documented.
“They just don't have the experience to really catch things, and be good gatekeepers as efficiently and effectively as we are in the United States and European Union,” said Katherine DiMatteo, senior associate at Wolf, DiMatteo & Associates, a firm specializing in organic businesses. “It doesn't mean that they're not going to be there, or be committed to becoming a world-class supplier of organic products, but they're new and they're still learning.”
Currently, the federal government has approved $1.7 billion to maintain food safety. According to a recent report issued by the Government Accountability Office, most of that total goes to the USDA, which manages 20% of the food Americans eat, while the Food and Drug Administration only gets a quarter of the funds, even though it monitors 80% of the food supply, including most imports.
As their country lumbers onto the world stage, Chinese exporters will have to take significant steps to bring their standards up to acceptable levels. Right now, the USDA estimates that 40% of the certification firms accredited by the agency to monitor organics are based outside the country. It's a telling statistic that speaks volumes of the importance of foreign organic markets, and the need to monitor them.