Saturday, March 5, 2011

Organic Confusion

Organic food from China is a controversial issue. Last year one of the biggest organic certifiers pulled out of China when it was determined that its use of personnel from the Organic Food Development Center (OFDC) to certify government-owned companies constituted a conflict of interest. In 2008, a TV news segment questioned Whole Foods supermarkets' sale of organics sourced from China, and Whole Foods responded by cutting most of its China-sourced organics and put an explanation on its web site which claims that it's possible to produce organic food in China.

Meanwhile, the popularity of organic food in China is growing, but Chinese organics are being undermined by the same problem with fakes experienced by every other industry in the country. China now has a growing segment of consumers willing to pay premium prices for safe, healthy, ecologically-friendly foods, but many hesitate to buy "organic" food because they don't have confidence in the certification.

An article from March 2010 in the Southern Metropolitan Daily described the chaotic regulation of domestic organic food as weakening consumers' confidence.

The OFDC, a unit of the government's Ministry of Environmental Protection, was the first in China to promote organic agriculture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Shortly after, the Ministry of Agriculture began promoting a less stringent "Green Food" certification/logo aimed at reducing pesticides and contamination as a means of promoting food exports. Green Food later developed its own organic standard. For a while there were dueling organic standards.

According to the article, organic was initially one of the strictest certifications, but now "...this certification is riddled with confusion, becoming one that consumers have a hard time trusting."

The Guangdong branch of the China Organic Certification Center (the descendent of "Green Food" organic) is so strict, that it has only done 9 organic food certifications in the province in 7 years since it was started. A company (most certified organic farms are run by companies) applies to the certification organization, documents its choice of varieties, harvest, storage and processing traceability system. The certification requires 2-3 years to complete, and then there is a 1-3 year organic conversion period.

Certification shopping is one of the problems. The Guangdong center received an application from a company in 2009 and advised the applicant on what it needed to do to achieve certification. However, two months later the center learned that the company had obtained a certification from another organization. According to the article, if you can pay money someone will give you a certification.

In the 1990s, OFDC did nearly all organic certifications, but in 2004 the Chinese National Accreditation agency (CNCA) was given power to authorize organizations to perform organic certifications for food sold in the Chinese market. The CNCA's list shows 26 organizations accredited to do organic certifications.

The article suggests that the large number of certifiers contributes to confusion. Moreover, many unaccredited organizations falsely advertise that they can do organic certifications.

In the Guangdong region, there are about 10 organizations doing organic certifications. The reporter’s investigation found that half or more of these are agents of various certification organizations or self-styled “close relations with certification organizations” who “guarantee we can help you get certification.”

Some provincial and prefecture level agricultural science and technology units advertise that they can help you pass certification, but the reporter learned they are only accredited to do testing of products; they cannot carry out certifications themselves.

One certification organization in Zhuhai calls itself an "official certification organization." The organization will send someone to investigate within a month after receiving a company's application, advise them on preparing materials, and complete the procedures in 2 or 3 months. It charges after 40,000 to 50,000 yuan.

A representative from this organization claimed they have accreditation from the EU and Japan, while other organizations are only accredited in China. However, the Guangdong China Certification Center's representative says this is false; only the OFDC is recognized overseas. If a Chinese certifier claims they are accredited overseas they are not telling the truth.

The article claims that the differing levels of administration for various certifications contributes to confusion. Organic and Green Food certificatoins are administered at the national level, but the less-stringent Pollution Free (无公害), a basic certification for safety, is carried out much more widely and administered by provincial authorities.

Once a company passes organic certification, there is little additional oversight. Companies mostly are responsible for regulating themselves. It is very rare for anyone to lose their certification.

According to a technician at the "East is Rising" farm near Guangzhou, most of the testing of vegetables is done on the farm. The district agriculture department conducts tests 1 or 2 times a month. The technician said the province and prefecture departments never check them, only people from the district occasionally come to the farm.

According to national regulations, the provincial and prefecture (city) agriculture departments are responsible for testing vegetables in the market. However, an official said that they rarely test organic vegetables because they are presumed to be relatively safe. As long as no obvious problems arise, they mostly don't bother testing organic vegetables.

A government certification worker tells a story illustrating the shortcomings of the testing process. Several years earlier a Green Food rice product was sent to the Zhenjiang national-level testing center, results showed the water was not up to standard. The city’s agriculture department notified the company, and allowed them to substitute a different sample of clean water. "This is not a secret, most in the industry do this,” said the worker.

Online forums have many discussions of what is organic food and questions about how you tell whether it's real or not. A web site for advising Chinese consumers on organic food warns people to watch out for fakes. It advises consumers to only buy organic food from special counters in supermarkets in packages with labels affixed. They should check companies on line to verify that they are legitimate.

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