More of everything is coming from China and food is no exception. Now, more and more, organic food is also coming from China. Which raises the question: if it is from China is it really organic?
A recent ABC Channel 7 I-Team News report suggests “no” and points fingers at Whole Foods Markets in particular for misleading consumers. Their report focuses primarily on the 365 Whole Foods brand. Many of these items aren’t organic. Others are labeled organic but in the small print on back it says Made In China. The report also finds that the USDA—owner and regulator of the USDA Organic label—puts their stamp of approval on many Made in China foods (including for instance California Blend Mixed Frozen Vegetables) but, according to the ITeam report, does NOT certify imported foods. Rather, they rely on Quality Assurance International (QAI) to do this. QAI, however, “has not certified any products in China” says the report. The report reveals the underlying issue with food from China: despite what it is supposed to be (organic, fresh, safe) much of it is NOT: “Already this year the FDA has stopped 260 shipments of foods contaminated with pesticides, bacteria, or filth.”
What the report doesn’t mention is that less than 1% of foods imported into the U.S. are inspected (AT ALL) by the FDA (the US government agency responsible for 75% of the food supply). With so few inspections happening and so many of the imports from China being found contaminated, it can make a consumer cringe to think what it means for the thousands of uninspected products. (In Canada the agency responsible is the CFIA—it seems that Canada’s import regulations are primarily voluntary guidelines, but it does seem that the country has a greater ability to deal with contamination. It is unclear what percentage of imports are actually inspected. USDA Organic products, however, are recognized as equivalent to Canada’s Organic Biologique so each can be sold as organic in the other country.)
Whole Foods Markets is actively engaged in a dilemma: how to bring LOTS of relatively CHEAP food into the hands of North American consumers whom have gotten used to spending (relative to income) less on food than anywhere in the world? Whole Foods Market’s Joe Dickson who is in charge of Quality Standards has written a good blog in response to the ITeam report. Among other things, it brings up the important point that China needs to start producing agriculture products organically and in order to do that they need to be supported in the process. He also brings up that Whole Foods does a lot of their own quality control testing. Yet, under Chinese law, foreigners may not inspect Chinese farms. So, this testing is not likely to be done at the farm. But, is it enough to trust organic food produced in China as truly organic? It doesn’t seem consumers are convinced.
So, what is a consumer to do?
I try to avoid products Made in China, especially food products. My largest reason for this is a review of recent Chinese export catastrophes (toxic toys, melamine-laced formula, regular food inspection failures).
For fresh produce, the local farmer’s market (or CSA : community supported agriculture or organic delivery box) is likely to give you the best value for the best product. Talk to the farmer. Ask questions, especially when buying processed foods. (I recently discovered that my favorite farm market salsa was made from canned tomatoes. Sigh. Canned tomatoes: not organic, imported from some unknown place, and certainly full of BPA leached from the cans of the tomato products.) I ditched this salsa for an organic, jarred alternative that is made closer to home.
For other goods, consumers have to get savvy.
First, look for products labeled USDA Organic (equivalent in Canada is the CFIA’s Canada Organic Biologique). Then, pull out the reading glasses and look closer (usually on the back in small print) to see where the product is produced. (Unfortunately, many “local” companies produce their products overseas.) Not all products will say where their product is produced, if it doesn’t say: be skeptical.
Also remember when buying frozen foods, jarred foods, or canned foods: frozen foods usually retain more of their nutrients and have fewer preservatives than canned/jarred foods. Jarred foods are far less likely to contain traces of BPA than canned foods.
When buying packaged and processed foods like potato chips or ready-made-meals determining country of origin and safety are much harder and it is nearly impossible to avoid getting food with at least some ingredients made in China. (China controls the world’s production of ascorbic acid, citric acid, xylitol, vanilla flavoring, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid among many other common additives.)