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Made in China

(article, Stephanie Beechem)

One unexpected consequence of the recent Chinese food scares — tainted toothpaste, pet food, fish — may be an increase in imports of Chinese organic food, reports Reuters. 

It's logical: As Americans grow increasingly wary of food tainted by chemicals, pesticides, and harmful additives, they're more likely to purchase organic products. But in order for the supply to keep up with the demand, those organic products may not be homegrown.

Worldwide, 40 percent of certified-organic producers are located outside the U.S.; China alone has some 300 separate organic farms and processers. The New York Sun recently reported that global imports of organic food from China tripled between 2003 and 2005. 

As in the U.S., USDA-sanctioned independent agencies are in charge of making organic certifications in China. But are these products truly organic? USDA economist Fred Gale told the Dallas Morning News that it is “almost impossible to grow truly organic food in China” due to its water pollution, soil contamination, and poor water quality.

Ronnie Cummins, the national director of the Organic Consumers Association, also expressed his fears to the New York Times, explaining that large American retailers will inevitably begin to outsource more organics from overseas, due to an increasing demand for organics that won’t be met by American production. 

“\[In\] places like China . . . you’ve got very dubious organic standards and labor conditions that are contrary to what any organic consumer would consider equitable,” he said.

So regardless of what the USDA organic label makes you think of — small family farms, healthy and happy animals, less chemicals — it’s good to remember that an organic label is only skin-deep. Until customers can be sure that the USDA organic label is thoughtfully and consistently applied wherever farms may be, it might be worth taking a closer look.

Elsewhere on Culinate: An article about not-so-cheap food imports.