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Is Organic from China Possible?

Update: June 13, 2010

Since I wrote this post about two years ago, we’ve had a few changes and I wanted to make sure anyone reading this is up to speed on current information. As of this summer (2010), we are no longer sourcing any of our Whole Foods Market 365 Everyday Value food products from China EXCEPT for frozen edamame (shelled and unshelled, organic and conventional). This means that out of more than 2,000 365 Everyday Value products right now, only ten are from China. These products include tea and frozen vegetables. We will be selling through the remaining stock of six of those over the summer, and the edamame will be the only one remaining at that time. I want to be really clear that we didn’t stop sourcing from China because of quality or food safety concerns. As I explain in the post below, we have always had great confidence in our vendor partners in China, and we have taken great steps – including visiting farms and processing facilities ourselves, in addition to organic certification -- to verify that those suppliers have the same level of integrity and commitment to quality as the rest of our partners across the world. Our move to other sources is simply that through a routine bidding process, we found several suppliers in other countries, including the U.S., that offered the same or better quality at better prices. This was primarily a business decision – changing vendors was a good decision for our customers right now. As mentioned, we will continue to source edamame from China because we are not able to find the same high quality edamame for the same price anywhere else. (In order to provide our customers with a choice, we also stock a premium, domestic frozen edamame from Columbia River Organics, a family-owned farm in Washington State.) While some of our customers have questioned our sourcing from China, ultimately this was a business decision based on maintaining or improving both the quality and price of our private label products. It’s possible that we will source more products from China again in the future. The bottom line is that beyond quality and price, we give our customers many choices in the products we offer and where they are sourced. Another important clarification: it has always been our policy and practice to clearly label fresh produce with its country of origin. While we do not purchase fresh produce from China for national distribution, in some circumstances stores may bring in Chinese products such as edamame, ginger, shiitake mushroom and garlic. For example, in the Vancouver market items with origins in Asia are very common and in high demand. Product of China may be among our offerings in select markets such as Vancouver BC. Again, there is always country of origin labeling by all fresh produce. We appreciate all of your feedback. Read on for more details.


Original Post

I spend more than half my work time thinking about, researching and talking about organic food. As part of my job as Quality Standards and Organic Programs Coordinator, I work with our stores and suppliers to help them understand and follow the National Organic Standards, to ensure that what they're selling as organic truly is. I also work with non-profit organizations, certifiers and others to support organic agriculture, and I carefully follow the USDA's National Organic Program and their ongoing work on the standard. Given all my work with organics, the Whole Story Blog powers-that-be asked me to answer one of the more perplexing questions that's been floating around lately: Can organic food from China truly be organic? The short answer is "yes, it can," but the long answer is far more complex and interesting. Let me take a few minutes to lay out some of the basic issues around organic agriculture in China, go over just what "organic" means in the US (or any country), talk to some leading organic experts and certifiers, and then let you decide whether organics from China are truly legit. News stories about products from China have been largely negative over the past year: Dog food tainted with toxic melamine, fake pharmaceuticals, toys with lead paint, contaminated crops... All of these very serious safety issues have raised serious red flags about the quality of everything coming out of China. Shoppers, retailers, food makers and the media have all wondered: "If pollution is this rampant, and oversight is this lax, how can we trust anything grown or made in China?" (Read a point by point response to a very misleading WJLA news story from May of 2008.) With organic food, the answer is complicated, but there are number of reasons we at Whole Foods Market feel good about our organic private label products from China. You can read more about some of the specific ways we make sure our organic private label products from China meet our standards here. Read on past the fold for more information about how U.S. law applies to organics grown outside the U.S., and what some experts see as opportunities to strengthen the system. Organic 101 Some quick background: Before 2002, there were no national organic standards. Some states had their own organic regulations, but there was no nationally accepted legal definition of the term. As the organic market grew, so did the potential for fraud and the need for consumer protection. In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which directed the USDA to create a regulation to define exactly what "organic" meant on food sold in the U.S. Thus the National Organic Standards were born. The USDA created this standard over the next ten years or so, advised by the National Organic Standards Board, (NOSB) a multi-stakeholder group made up of growers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumer representatives, retailers, and other organic experts. Through a transparent and public process of meetings and hearings around the country, the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) and the NOSB developed a thorough and comprehensive standard that governs how organic food is grown, raised and processed, and how it's certified, overseen and marketed. This standard is still managed by the NOP and advised by the NOSB, who meet about twice a year to work on the standard and receive input from the public. Anyone who wants to sell food as organic in the U.S. must be certified by one of the USDA's accredited third-party certifiers. These certifiers are approved and supervised through a process called accreditation, by which the NOP audits and inspects the certifiers to make sure they're enforcing the standard appropriately. International Organics One popular misconception out there is that organic food grown in another country is grown according to that country's rules (or lack of rules). That's just not true. Anyone growing food that's going to be sold as organic in the U.S. is required to follow the U.S. standards and be certified by a USDA accredited certifier. A number of internationally-based certifiers are accredited by the USDA, and many U.S.-based certifiers have employees on the ground in other countries. To help understand just how certification works on the ground in China, I talked to Jeff See, Executive Director of The Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), one of the major U.S. certifiers working in China. "We follow the same system anywhere in the world. There are language differences, but we use translators and native speakers." Given the recent attention to pollution and food safety issues in China, See says they've strengthened their work in China. "Since 2005 we've really stepped up our oversight in China. It's misinformation that the whole country is unable to be certified because of pollution. It's a very large country, and there are parts that are largely unpolluted." A few of the experts I spoke to pointed out that it's ironic that China is now so polluted, given that China once was home to one of the oldest strongest ecological agricultural traditions in the world. "As the Buddha said, all truth must be paradox," says Joe Smillie, Senior Vice President at Quality Assurance International, one of the leading organic certifiers in the U.S. "I've always believed that China was the original homeland of organics. The Chinese peasant throughout history is one of the best organic eco farmers that the world has seen." That peasant ecological farming tradition was largely pushed aside as the rising population in China's cities caused immense pressure to increase food production starting in the 1960s. "The move to increase food production dumped a lot of urea (from nitrogen fertilizers) and other pollutants into the countryside," notes Smillie. "Nitrogen fertilizers increase your production at great environmental cost. A lot of China has been compromised, but at the core, that peasant spirit is alive and well in some areas." Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist at The Organic Center, agrees. "I think the Chinese were growing and consuming high quality organic food several centuries before we were in the US, so I think high quality organic food can definitely be grown in China. The real concern now is widespread contamination of soil, air and water with pollutants and industrial chemicals. NOP standards provide some guidance regarding how farmers and certifiers in China are supposed to address environmental contaminants, but questions persist regarding how effectively they are doing so." Another concern with organic production in China is that Chinese culture just doesn't allow for the type of transparency that business in the US has gotten used to. Benbrook says that here in the US "there is a high degree of cultural, professional, economic and corporate pressure to follow the rules. In China, many people don't feel the same the way about government rules. It's more accepted to tip one's hat to the rules but do what you need to do. That's what worries me." "Some of the key challenges are that the infrastructure of organic certification requires a level of transparency and both planned and unplanned spot inspections; certification also requires an interface with government and access to government data, and that's where China becomes a difficult and challenging environment" says Bob Scowcroft, Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "The government doesn't handle implied mistrust very well, and that's one basis of organic certification. Just showing up and saying ‘Surprise! I want to see your garden' is a difficult proposition in China, given that it's half the world away for US-based certifiers." These challenges to certification in China make certification more difficult for the certifiers, and the integrity of this process depends on the integrity of USDA's oversight of the certifiers. USDA Accreditation Many in the organic community feel that the USDA's accreditation process - the process by which they oversee and review certifiers - needs to be more public and open in order to ensure that the USDA is enforcing the standard. While the certifiers I spoke to said that the accreditation process keeps them on their toes, others said that they'd feel more confident in the system if it were more transparent. "Considering the resources our country has given them, they're doing a good job, and I've seen them make us make a lot of changes since the implementation of the standard, very good changes," says See. "They have shadowed us in China and visited several of our operations in China as part of that accreditation, and we've been told they will be coming back again this year. They have found some points that we have to improve in China, and we are." "They come to our offices and can go through any file they want, a long list of things they have to do, based on ISO 61 guidelines, which are strict international guidelines that tell them how to accredit," says Smillie. "They have to check us out and make sure we're doing the right thing, and you have to show improvement. You have to really dance quick or you're gone." Smillie noted that USDA accreditation officials had also shadowed QAI's inspectors on international audits. Scowcroft believes that the USDA could do more to be transparent and open the accreditation process to the public: "This was never intended to be a black hole, it's a public private partnership, and the USDA has done little to explain how they spot check certifiers and to what extent they enforce any infractions they do discover." "I haven't seen the NOP invest time and political capital needed to enhance the accreditation process in the ways that are going to be necessary to bring the process in a country like China or India up to US standards," said Benbrook. The recently passed Farm Bill urged appropriators in Congress to allocate nearly $2 million a year in additional funding for the National Organic Program, and I hope that this chunk of this funding will go towards stronger, better and more public accreditation work at NOP. More resources and funding can only help the program, which struggles to oversee organic agriculture in the US on a limited budget. Within the verification community, everyone's trying to do their best with the resources they have" notes Scowcroft. "But there's a question as to whether the resources they have match the incredible magnitude of the growing organic market." The NOP also just launched a new online reading room where they are posting documents related to certification and accreditation work. This site will help the organic community keep a close eye on the USDA's work and directly review NOP accreditation documents. Any member of the public can now review NOP's accreditation reports for any certifier online. Scrutiny is a good thing. Organic certification in China obviously raises some serious questions. While there's definitely a system of oversight in place, pollution and lack of transparency in China is just cause to look very closely at all food from China, organic or otherwise. As I mentioned, we've gone to great lengths to make sure the organic private label products we import from China meet our own standards and the National Organic Standards. Our buyers and auditors visit the farms and facilities we buy from, and we have created testing protocols that test for pesticide and heavy metal residues. Our quality systems and test results suggest that the organic certification process is working well for these products. So, to (longwindedly) answer the question, "Can organic products from China truly be organic?" We've found that they can, but we've also found that the question requires and deserves lots of scrutiny. I expect that this same question will be receiving a lot of attention in the coming months from organic shoppers, the media, non-profit groups and the USDA, and this increased scrutiny and accountability will hopefully lead to improved trust in organic products from the U.S. and around the globe. But, in the meantime, we at Whole Foods Market aren't waiting. We've been taking extra steps to make sure our organic products from all over the world are organic, and now we're launching a new level of transparency about our products, where we get them, and how evaluate them. We'll be updating our website with more info about in the coming weeks, and keeping you updated via this blog.