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Another Example Of Certifiers Lacking Integrity: USDA Drops Organic Certifier In China

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 16, 2010

If you need an additional reason to read the Pundit, you could look at our December 21, 2007, interview with Jeff See, Executive Director of OCIA International, Lincoln, Nebraska. We titled the piece Too Many Concerns Still Exist Over Organic Certification In China, and we came to these conclusions:

Considering the product value and the poverty of the country and the affiliation between the Chinese inspectors and their countrymen farmers, it seems very likely that many inspectors can be encouraged to overlook things…

…What we take from all this is that a mere certificate is not sufficient to assure a buyer of legitimate organic product from China. It is certainly not sufficient to assure a buyer that it is both technically organic and also grown in a healthy, clean environment.

So procurement of Chinese organics requires one to either have actual control of the production in China or a trusted supplier who has control of production in China.

If you don’t read the Pundit, you could wait two-and-a-half years and eventually read the front page of The New York Times, when it announces that OCIA is being dropped as an organic certifier in China. The piece is titled, U.S. Drops Inspector of Food in China:

Now serious questions about certification in China have been raised by the United States Agriculture Department. The agency, which uses private groups to conduct most organic inspections worldwide, has banned a leading American inspector from operating in China because of a conflict of interest that strikes at the heart of the organics’ guarantee. The federal agency also plans to send an audit team to China this year to broadly review the certification process.

Federal officials say the banned inspector, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities. The group, based in Nebraska and known by the initials O.C.I.A., has for years been one of the leading inspectors of Chinese organics for the United States market.

The only problem is that the United States Department of Agriculture — what is with The New York Times calling it the United States Agriculture Department — caught OCIA on a technicality. It had been subcontracting with a government-owned group to do the inspections, and some of the facilities they were inspecting were government-owned. This is a conflict of interest and a violation of the rules.

But these neat separations between private and public are really artifacts of Western thinking. There really would be no difference at all because the auditor was technically private.

This whole way of thinking is a triumph of form over substance. It is very difficult to imagine some lone Chinese inspector standing up to close down a state-owned giant entity, cause the unemployment of thousands of his kinsmen, etc., just so he can have his personal integrity and not stamp it organic.

If the USDA doesn’t deal with that substantive problem, then all this formulaic enforcement is just a farce.

Besides, bribery is endemic in Chinese culture, and China refuses to prosecute those who offer bribes, which ultimately makes all certifications coming out of China highly suspect. In fact, in our piece written for The New Atlantis, How to Improve Food Safety: Aggrandizing The FDA Only Distracts from Real Solutions, we argue that if you really want to budget so as to improve food safety, the agency that needs the money is the FBI, not the FDA.

We suppose we can add Interpol to the list as well. The point is that the world’s food safety system depends on the integrity of auditing and certification standards. If we don’t make sure those certificates mean something, nothing else we do will likely have much effect on food safety.

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