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USDA fires certifier of Chinese organics: conflicts of interest

Posted Jun 14 2010 8:18am

In a move that should bring cheer to anyone who cares about the integrity of organic certification, the USDA has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from certifying foods from China as organic.  According to the accounts in today’s New York Times and the USDA’s enforcement announcement , OCIA used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities.

Oops.  This is sending the fox out to guard the chickens (organic, hopefully).  The Chinese government has a vested interest in selling certified organic foods and can only be expected to be lenient in enforcing rules for organic production.

Honest, reliable, consistent inspection is the cornerstone of consumer trust in organics.  If producers aren’t following the rules to the letter (and, we wish, the spirit), why would anyone be willing to pay higher prices for organics?  Since it’s impossible to prove that organics are more nutritious than conventional foods, the entire system rests on trust.  And the value of trust rests with the inspectors.

Advocates of organics have been worried for ages about the credibility of organic foods from China and whether cheap organics produced according to high standards.  Now we know, and the answer is not pretty.  With respect to OCIA’s arrangement with Chinese government inspector, the New York Times explains:

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.

This cozy arrangement has been going on for at least the last three years?

It’s good that USDA is taking this on now.

But USDA really needs to take a hard look at conflicts of interest in organic certification, domestic as well as foreign.  Some USDA-authorized certifying agencies are much more lenient than others.  Witness: certification of fish and pet food as organic, despite the lack of final rules for such certification.  Some certifying agencies manage to find ways to do this; others refuse.

The organic industry ought to be pushing USDA as hard as it can to establish and enforce the highest possible standards for organic certification.  I’m looking forward to reading what the Organic Trade Association —and OCIA—have to say about all this.

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