A plot to import fake Chinese organic food into the country uncovered recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture came none too soon for local farmers and watchdog groups who have complained about the problem for years.
On Feb. 11, the USDA's National Organic Program released evidence of attempted fraud by a Chinese organic agricultural marketer. The agency made public a fraudulent organic certificate produced by an uncertified supplier in China.
According to a USDA statement, the Chinese firm used the counterfeit certificate to represent nonorganic crops, including soybeans, millet and buckwheat, as organic.
"Verifying the authenticity of cheaper organic imports to the U.S. has been raised repeatedly over the last decade," said Nick Maravell, owner of Nick's Organic Farm in Adamstown and Potomac.
An organic farmer for 31 years, Maravell was recently appointed to the National Organic Standards Board, which assists in the development of standards for substances used in organic production and advises the secretary of agriculture on implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
"I grow organic soybeans and I have heard from U.S. grain brokers of Chinese organic soybean prices that seemed to me to be too good to be true," Maravell said. "I can no longer financially justify selling organic soy as a grain commodity. Now, I have to add value to my beans on the farm before I sell them."
Maravell said he now produces organic soybean seed stock, fresh vegetable soybeans known as edamame, and ground organic poultry feed that contains soybeans.
"If I need to supplement my supply of organic soybeans for my feed operation, I buy American beans from local organic farmers I know personally," Maravell said. -- --
Maravell credited new leadership at USDA for encouraging closer cooperation between governments and organic certifying agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
"Now, USDA needs to follow this cooperation with strict enforcement. I only hope that federal budget cuts do not hamper enforcement," Maravell said.
Brian Biggins said misrepresentation by some Chinese businesses are not limited to shipments of organic grains.
"They are shipping everything they can and call it organic," said Biggins who owns and operates Miolea Organic Farm Adamstown with his wife, Carolyn.
China's fake organic products are being shipped to the east and west coasts, Biggins said.
"As American consumers we need to be more aware of our food sources. Once again, buying from small farmers gets a boost because of unscrupulous operators like the one described in the USDA report," Biggins said.
China's largest organic certifier was recently stripped of their accreditation status due to gross conflicts of interest, Biggins said.
"Factory farms in China are owned by the government," Biggins said. "The certifying agents were government employees hired by the certifier to go to government-owned factory farms and inspect them according to the National Organic Procedure."
Chinese law doesn't allow inspection of farms by foreigners, which is the main way the USDA determines if organic standards are met, Biggins said.
"If they cannot inspect the facility and the inputs used in the operation, how can they find issues or be able to certify?" Biggins said. "Yet USDA has let China import organic products for years."
Recently, China's "organic" ginger was found to be contaminated with a pesticide called aldicarb, which at low levels causes nausea, headaches and blurred vision.
"The ginger contained a level of aldicarb not even permissible for conventional ginger, let alone organic," Biggins said.
On the heels of the USDA bust, watchdog group Cornucopia Institute has called for a moratorium on Chinese imports to protect consumers and farmers.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, advocates for economic justice for family farmers. The organization's Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate and governmental watchdog.
"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," said Mark A. Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, in a recent statement. "Unfortunately, this incident also serves as a stark reminder that imports from China are fraught with peril."