USDA Drops Organic Food Inspector in China

Organic food from China, including frozen vegetables, edemame soybeans, ginger, and tea, have found their way into supermarkets including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.  The packages often sport the “U.S.D.A. Organic” seal, but concern and even outrage over Chinese goods in recent years—from tainted pet food to lead paint—has prompted more retailers, including Whole Foods, to reduce the number of organic products coming from China.  Of course, the fact that such produce is hauled long distances, consuming huge quantities of fuel, begs the question whether any benefits that this organic food may offer is negated by the distance it must travel.

Now organic food coming from China has hit another setback.  It turns out that Nebraska-based Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), had employees of a Chinese state agency inspect the state controlled-farms, which of course misses the whole point of organic food inspection:  independent certification.  The USDA responded to the controversy by banning the OCIA from running any food inspections in China—but they can still do so in Canada, Mexico, and any other country that grows organic food for the US market.

Under the USDA’s organic food inspection program, third-party, independent inspectors are supposed to conduct the evaluations to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.  The complaints first started circulating as far back as 2007, but the USDA’s internal appeals process are so slow that the announcement of OCIA’s ban in China did not become official until Monday.  Apparently it took over two years for USDA decision makers to realize that having Chinese government employees inspect food marked for export is probably not the wisest idea.

Monday’s announcement will hardly stop the flow of produce coming from China, or any other country for that matter.  While the move towards sourcing local and seasonal food is growing stronger in the United States, Americans have become accustomed to having their favorite fruits and vegetables in abundance year-round.  Despite the housing crisis, more farms in California’s Central Valley are turning into tract homes, and the water crisis has killed off many farms and orchards in the last couple years.  The difficulty of finding farm laborers and the toxic immigration debate means that more food ends up growing in Mexico—just visit your local Trader Joe’s and about three-fourths of their produce comes from south of the border.  Whether its forestry or offshore oil drilling, the federal government has not given its stakeholders confidence that the follow-up on regulations its agencies propose will receive the necessary follow-up.

The upshot is:  if food safety is a concern, do the necessary background research and question your grocers about the source and safety of the produce that your are purchasing.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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