After years of ringing the alarm bell about fraudulent Chinese organic production, the nation’s preeminent organic farming watchdog, The Cornucopia Institute, applauded the federal government’s current approach to enforcement and its transparency. On February 11, The Department of Agriculture (USDA) publicly released evidence of attempted fraud by a Chinese organic agricultural marketer.
The agency’s National Organic Program (NOP) made public a fraudulent organic certificate produced by an uncertified supplier in China. The Chinese firm used the counterfeit certificate to represent non-organic crops, including soybeans, millet and buckwheat, as certified organic.
Ecocert, a French USDA accredited certifying agent whose name was illegally used on the fraudulent document, brought this issue to the attention of NOP officials at USDA, which regulates and oversees the American organic market.
“By working closely with certifying agents, and sharing concerns like this with the wider organic community, the USDA’s National Organic Program is working as it was designed by Congress to protect ethical industry participants and the public,” says Mark A, Kastel, Codirector of The Cornucopia Institute. “Unfortunately, this incident also serves as a stark reminder that imports from China are fraught with peril.”
In its 2009 report on the organic soy industry, entitled Behind the Bean, The Cornucopia Institute raised concerns about organic soybeans imported from China. The recent finding by the USDA, spotlighting fraud by a Chinese supplier, confirms the suspicions Cornucopia documents that imported organic products cannot always be trusted and that domestically sourced organic soybeans are more desirable.
In the 2009 report, the Wisconsin-based farm policy research group estimated that as much as half of organic soybeans used in the US came from overseas, primarily China.
“This incident illustrates why so many responsible processors and marketers in the organic industry shun organic imports,” states Charlotte Vallaeys, the Cornucopia report’s lead author.
After multiple incidents of food contamination, including melamine in pet food, many US corporations are now, justifiably, leery of putting their brand name on products containing Chinese ingredients, conventional and organic.
Cornucopia had, since the middle part of the last decade, been voicing concerns about imported products from China. It had blasted the USDA, during the Bush administration, for providing oversight of domestic organic certification programs while, for years, ignoring imports from China.
Cornucopia’s report noted that imported soybeans are often shipped to the U.S. by corporations knowing nothing about the origin of the commodities over and above a single sheet of paper. The report stated: “It is all too easy to falsify these records, whether intentionally or unintentionally.” Today’s release by the USDA of a falsified organic certificate from China confirms these concerns.
Also in the report, Cornucopia raised a red flag over the lack of judicious organic oversight in China by the USDA. Cornucopia explained, based on documents it secured under the Freedom of Information Act, what happened when the USDA did finally sent auditors to China for the first time in 2007, a full five years after the federal organic standards took effect.
“This was the first time USDA staff members visited certifiers in China, Chinese processors, and Chinese farms to ensure that their procedures were in compliance with USDA organic standards,” stated Kastel. “It was an inexcusable delay, especially given the history of widespread Chinese fraud in international commerce and fraudulent marketing of organic food in their domestic market, which had been well documented in the Chinese media.”
In the entire country of China the USDA auditors only inspected two farms and two processors, finding serious violations at the time. No follow-up inspections were conducted to determine whether the noncompliances identified were aberrations or symptomatic of systemic problems.
Organic soybeans imported from China have become a prevalent source of animal feed used on industrial-scale organic livestock operations, especially in Western states. The reliance on imported organics has economically injured North American farmers, who are often unable to compete with the cheaper prices offered by Chinese firms.
In the current incident the NOP has not found evidence that any product was sold, labeled, or represented as organic using the fraudulent certificate. However, the full extent of the scandal is not known at this time.
“Although these violations may occur, the vigilance of the organic community will help abate them,” said Miles McEvoy, NOP deputy administrator. “We are warning certifying agents and organic handlers to be on the lookout and to notify the NOP if anyone tries to sell organic products using fraudulent certificates.”
The Cornucopia Institute has praised the current administration at the USDA, and McEvoy in particular, for its aggressive posture in relation to enforcing federal law and protecting the integrity of the organic industry.
“We call upon responsible industry players, farmers, feed mills, processors and retailers, to place an immediate moratorium on commodities imported from China,” stated the Cornucopia’s Kastel. “Even if the authenticity of Chinese organics can be proven, shipping food around the world, and undercutting sustainable prices for domestic farmers, is not ‘organic’ in the eyes of many consumers.”
As a resource for consumers and wholesale buyers who wish to avoid organic products containing Chinese soybeans, The Cornucopia Institute developed a scorecard of organic soy food brands. The source of the soybeans is one of the main rating criteria used for the scorecard, with companies that exclusively source domestically-grown organic soybeans, from family-scale farms, rated more highly than those that rely on imported soybeans. The scorecard is available on the Cornucopia website.
“We identified the companies that have maintained positive relationships with domestic organic farmers and have thereby managed to maintain a steady and adequate supply of North American-grown organic soybeans. Staying true to the spirit of organics, these companies remained devoted to their farmers even when China offered organic soybeans at slightly lower prices,” states Vallaeys. “Given the recent finding by the USDA, the companies that kept buying North American soybeans, even when Chinese supplies were cheaper, can be proud of the organic integrity of their products.”