In a pinch the other night, I picked up a jar of organic pasta sauce from Shaw’s (their new O Organics brand) – and I, the loudest advocate for ‘local’ in the room, did not read the label. Only the next day as I was peeling the label to save the jar, did I see that it was made in China. I was horrified. We are seeing more and more organic food products from China in our grocery stores, (don’t get duped by distributor addresses on labels, you’ll have to hunt to find the original source of the product, but it should be on there). We’ve all had to become chemical, agricultural, and labelling experts just to buy groceries these days, who do we trust. We are going to map out the process for you, so to speak, in order of preference for anything not grown in the U.S.:
- Countries that have the same standards and similar process as ours, where the organic label is interchangeable – only Canada. Certified organic produce grown in the US may be sold in Canada under that label, and vice versa. We are in discussions with the EU to develop the same equivalence for the purpose of trade but we are not there yet.
- Countries that have trade agreements and National Organic Program accredited agents, who are able to certify producers according to the US standards provided by the NOP/USDA – European Union, India, Israel, New Zealand, Korea, Japan, Switzerland
- Rest of World – we have no direct USDA organic trade agreements anywhere else for product certification, and no other accreditations (that I can find information on) that link or tie countries or organizations directly to the NOP or USDA under the organic label.
So what about that pasta sauce from China? Well, there is still a process which can be followed, but it’s complicated so bear with me. The retailer or distributor responsible for bringing the food in to the country (let’s say Shaw’s) appoints a U.S. based and USDA/NOP accredited certifying agent (let’s say Quality Assurance International or QAI). This accredited agent can certify growers, distributors or manufacturers under the ‘certified organic’ label, but they can also conduct an assessment of a foreign certifying agent (let’s say Beijing Organics) based in the source country (China) to ensure that their certifying/record keeping processes are in accordance with the USDA standards and requirements. China Organics can then go ahead and certify producers in China for products destined for kitchen tables in the U.S.
Why do it that way? Why don’t QAI just certify the growers themselves? Well, they may not have offices in the source country making it challenging to keep tabs on the farm regularly and conduct required periodic inspections. If it were a handful of farms, it still wouldn’t be economically viable to set up offices and pay trained staff. Language could be a barrier too. This way, Beijing Organics can do the legwork, and QAI can fly in for annual and extensive audits of all records, and perhaps visit some of the farms. It is a question of practical economics you see?
So now, as a consumer, you can consider the practicalities of the system too, even if we put any doubts or fears about the certification process aside because grocery store chains will uphold the ethics of the label on behalf of their consumers, right? The certification itself will not answer all our questions. How long the product has been in storage? What is its’ carbon footprint? Were the tomatoes grown on a small scale family farm, or a large scale industrial one? Were they grown in China, or were they imported from somewhere else? If they were imported from somewhere else, are those records also audited by the same firm? What about the environmental impact of the farm in that country – was virgin land cleared? Where is their water coming from? How are farm workers being treated? And doesn’t this process feel like we’re playing broken telephone? The USDA/NOP sets the standards, hands them over to an accredited certifying agent, who hands them off to a foreign certifying agents, who hands them to a farmer on foreign soil – it doesn’t invoke confidence, does it? And it’s PASTA sauce! We grow tomatoes and can make it here – so why don’t we?
We used China as the example, but it could be frozen carrots from Russia, canned peaches from Argentina or marmalade from South Africa. I would like to think that no U.S. based accredited certifying agent like QAI is going to risk its license and entire business operation on a questionable foreign certifying agent, but I think the best peace of mind you can hope to find will be in sourcing your food as close to home as possible.