The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for checking most imported foods, samples less than 1 percent of all regulated products.
It’s no secret that China has a tainted food problem.
Since the melamine tragedy of 2008, when infant formula sickened thousands of babies and killed at least six, the country has faced a string of reported food dramas: Watermelons exploding from too much growth chemical, borax in beef, bleach in mushrooms, soy sauce made with arsenic and from human hair, and “eggs” created using chemicals, gelatin and paraffin.
Even melamine continues to show up. Chinese food imports are regularly turned away from U.S. ports because of melamine content, and last year Chinese police seized more than 26 tons of milk powder tainted with the chemical from an ice-cream maker.
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Add to that China’s notorious problem with corruption. Last summer it retried a journalist who reported on political corruption and sentenced him to eight more years in jail.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic program has decided to visit China more often.
“China is a major producer of organic products, and there are continual questions about the integrity of products coming from China,” said Miles McEvoy, who heads the organic program.
In September 2010, its auditors visited four of the 10 firms that certify food coming from China as organic.
They found nothing seriously amiss, but plan to go back this year to check.
No one tracks how much organic food China ships to the U.S., but overall Chinese organic exports have rocketed from $300,000 in 1995 to about $500 million in 2008. Most of it goes to Europe, but the number of organic operations — farms, processors and others — being certified for U.S. organic standards climbed from 496 in 2006 to 649 last fall.
Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, which carries a few organic teas, organic udon noodles and several frozen organic vegetables from China, began searching again this month for domestic sources. It has not been successful in the past at finding other sources for products such as frozen organic edamame.
“Absolutely, there are concerns about foods from China, and we are examining again whether we need to keep selling these foods to meet the demand from consumers,” said Trudy Bialic, the chain’s director of public affairs.
Customers should know that products with more than one ingredient, including mixed vegetables, are not required to carry country-of-origin labels, Bialic said.
In many cases, even manufacturers do not know where each ingredient originated, she said. “If people are concerned about foods from China, they need to buy food in a whole, raw state and cook.”
Whole Foods in 2010 stopped buying organic food labeled as coming from China within its private-label line, except for frozen edamame. The chain said it had confidence in its Chinese imports but found better prices elsewhere.
Whole Foods’ decision came two years after organic ginger from China sold under its “365” private label was tested by a television station in Washington, D.C., and found to contain the pesticide aldicarb sulfoxide, which is not approved for use even on conventionally grown ginger.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for checking most imported foods, samples less than 1 percent of all regulated products. It regularly refuses shipments of purportedly organic foods because of pesticide residues or unsafe food additives — not because the food does not meet organic standards, but because they do not meet standards for any food. For example, organic soybean meal coming through the Port of Seattle in 2007 appeared to contain “a poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health,” according to an FDA report.
The USDA’s organic program, which ensures that food carrying the organic label is indeed organic, does not examine food as it comes into the country, and it only sporadically tests products that are labeled organic from the U.S. and elsewhere.
It accredits firms and sometimes states, including the Washington state Department of Agriculture, to certify products as organic. McEvoy earned an excellent reputation as head of the state agriculture department’s organic program before going to run the national program.
Those “third-party certifiers” inspect farms and factories and make sure their paperwork is in order. If the inspectors notice something amiss they can test products, but it is not a regular practice. For example, Washington field tests products from at least 5 percent of the farms and other organic facilities it certifies.
The national organic program is expected to come out with a rule soon that would require regular field testing everywhere for a certain percentage of organic products.
Meanwhile, when someone gets in trouble, it often involves bureaucracy. The USDA banned a major certifier, Organic Crop Improvement Association in Nebraska, from working in China after learning that it let Chinese government employees inspect state-controlled farms and factories.
And last year, the USDA’s organic program found 10 companies using fraudulent organic certificates, four of them from China. Using such documents is punishable by fines up to $11,000 per violation.
Most problems are not that big, McEvoy said, who said he has faith that organics from China and elsewhere are truly organic.
“I have confidence in the system no matter where the product comes from,” he said. “It’s a very rigorous system that includes inspection and certification and review and audit control.”
China is one of the largest food importers to the U.S., but still only a fraction of 1 percent of the U.S. food supply comes from China — although it regularly supplies more than half of this country’s apple juice and garlic.
Only a fraction of those imports are organic — just as only a fraction is tainted, said Lawrence Busch, a professor at Michigan State University who specializes in product standards and has become an expert in the third-party certification industry.
China is working hard to fix its food problems, he said, largely because the well-off people who support its federal government have been most affected. Poor people in extremely remote areas do not have access to chemicals, so their food tends to be clean, Busch said.
Just as the U.S. recently passed a Food Safety Modernization Act to address issues such as the increase in food imports from China, the Chinese government has been strengthening its food-safety laws.
“Probably the vast majority of Chinese stuff that meets the organic label does so legitimately,” Busch said. “But it only takes a small amount of problem to undermine consumer confidence.”
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312