The best of all worlds equates to local foods, grown organically. But when that is not a possibility, there is an ongoing debate whether local foods, not grown organically, are a superior source of food to organic food grown hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Complicating this debate is the fact that it is not clear whether the consumer can rely on “organic” designations. Who says the food is organically grown? If it’s the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), it is fair to say that under the Bush administration, this regulatory function was lax and poorly funded. The green USDA organic seal found on food products could not always be relied upon.
On June 14, 2010, the USDA announced that it has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) of Nebraska from operating in China. The USDA uses private entities worldwide to ensure that food claimed to be “organic” is, in fact, produced organically, and OCIA of Nebraska functioned in this role in China.
After a lengthy process of reviewing complaints concerning the certification of organic foods from China by OCIA of Nebraska, the USDA has determined, in the succinct words of Leon Kaye who writes for www.triplepundit.com, that “having Chinese government employees inspect food marked for export is probably not the wisest idea.”
Under the USDA’s organic food inspection program, independent, third-party inspectors should be determining whether to designate food as “organic”. According to Miles V. McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, as quoted in the NY Times, in an audit of OCIA of Nebraska’s China operations, at least 10 farms managed by the Chinese government “posed a potential conflict of interest” (U.S. Drops Inspector of Food in China”, William Neuman and David Barboza, New York Times, June 14, 2010). On May 28, 2010, OCIA of Nebraska executed a settlement agreement with USDA which bars it from operating in China for at least one year. This concern for the “integrity” of organic food by the current regulators at the USDA reflects a refreshing change in presidential leadership in Washington. Still, with recent memories of the tainted milk scandal in China, as well as the recent discovery of heavy metals and pesticides in products taken for health produced in China, as reported in the New York Times, the USDA’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of the organic standard of foods produced in China is a heavy burden, which will not be shouldered easily and might turn out to be impracticable, if not impossible. William Neuman and David Barboza, in their New York Times story on the USDA banning OCIA of Nebraska from inspecting organic foods in China, also reported that the United States imports $3 billion a year in farm products form China and that the number of Chinese organic producers certified under USDA regulations rose more than 200 percent to 669 in 2009 from 216 in 2008.