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Reports of Falsely Labeled Products Demonstrate Threat to American Farmers and Consumers if USDA Does Not Step Up Oversight of Imported Organic Foods

If Phony Chinese Products Reach America it Would Undermine Consumer Trust in 'Organic' Brand - Production of Organic Food is A Growing and Lucrative Industry in St. Lawrence County

Schumer: Imports Need to Meet Same Rigorous Standar

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Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer revealed that food products produced in China that are fraudulently labeled 'organic' threaten to undermine a lucrative and growing industry in St. Lawrence County - the organic farming industry. Schumer said that reports have shown that some Chinese growers are mislabeling their products as 'organic' and he called on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to more aggressively act to halt the practice. If it continues, consumers' confidence in the 'organic' brand could be undercut and the entire industry could be hurt.


Standing at Bittersweet Farm a certified organic producer Schumer was joined by local organic producers who could be hurt if fraudulently labeled 'organic' products from China enter the U.S. market.

"Organic produce and products are a growing industry in New York State, securing high prices and providing additional diversity to our farming economy," said Schumer.  "These higher prices, however, rely on consumers trusting that what they are purchasing is actually a high quality organic product, and the threat of phony Chinese organics entering our domestic market could undermine that confidence.  The USDA must crack down immediately on these fraudulent products, to ensure continued growth and confidence in New York farmers' organic production."

Since the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Action (OFPA) the USDA has had the sole responsibility for certifying that products grown domestically and internationally meet organic standards. When a product is labeled 'organic' that means that farmers produce the food with methods that maximize soil health, conserve water and reduce air pollution. Certified organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones.

In 2002, the USDA established standards for organic products. Meeting these standards is the core of the organic certification process a process producers are required to complete before labeling a product as organic. The standards apply regardless of whether the product is from the United States or another country. USDAapproved state, nonprofit and private agencies called certifiers are charged with enforcing these standards.

Despite the USDA's standards there are credible allegations that foreign producers are not meeting the high standards of the organics program. For example, Public Radio International reported in June that an American journalism student uncovered falsely labeled organic strawberries on a Chinese farm. Another article published last year by GlobalPost reported on Chinese farmers who comingle certified organic produce with conventional produce and pass it all off as organic. The possibility that foreign imports do not meet the high standards of the organics program could seriously undermine consumer confidence and threaten the integrity of the entire program. 


An internal audit released by USDA in March reveal serious oversight gaps in the organic certification program. In the report, the Inspector General recommended that USDA strengthen oversight of foreign certifying agents. Stronger oversight is crucial to ensure consumer confidence but also to allow New York's organics industry to compete on a level playing field. Under the Obama administration, USDA has made efforts to improve oversight of the organic program but more needs to be done to enhance scrutiny of foreign products specifically.  


In 2008, the most recent date for which statistics are available, New York State's 803 certified organic farms accounted for over $105 million in sales employing thousands and serving as the anchor for many local economies. In St. Lawrence County alone there are 32 certified organic farms a number which is expected to grow in the coming years as the organic label becomes more popular. If the organic brand were to be called into question farmers in communities all across New York could be put out of business which would hurt the state economy


In addition, Schumer called on USDA to work with the International Trade Commission (ITC) to develop trade codes for tracking the international movement of organic products. The ITC does not currently differentiate between organic and nonorganic products, meaning that little data exists on the volume of organic goods the U.S. imports and exports. Having this information would be a boon to the organics industry and allow for better tracking of foreign products and development of markets for domestic products.


It's imperative that the USDA step up its oversight of organic products and ensure that products coming from foreign countries like China are indeed organic. Today, Schumer pledged to press the USDA to ensure the integrity of New York's organic products. The full text of Schumer's letter to Secretary Vilsack can be seen below.


Dear Secretary Vilsack:


I write to express concern about imports of products labeled "organic" from China and to encourage you to take appropriate action to ensure that foreign imports, especially from China, meet the same high standards as domestically produced organic products. 


The U.S. organic products industry has grown significantly in the past decade, generating nearly $27 billion in U.S. sales last year. The integrity of the "Organic" food label and the USDA organic seal is important to the continued success of this important industry. Consumers must trust that the products they are purchasing were produced in accordance with the USDA's organic standards. Farmers, who make significant investments to produce products organically, get a higher price for organic products, but this is only possible if consumers trust the label and are willing to pay a premium for a higher value product.


Allegations that foreign imports are not meeting the high standards of the organics program threaten to undermine consumer confidence and hurt the program.  For example, Public Radio International reported in June on an American journalism student who uncovered falsely labeled organic strawberries on a Chinese farm. Another article published last year by GlobalPost reported on Chinese farmers who comingle certified organic produce with conventional produce and pass it all off as organic. The possibility that foreign imports do not meet the high standards of the organics program could seriously undermine consumer confidence and threaten the integrity of the entire program.  Fortunately, to my knowledge, mislabeled foreign products have not been uncovered in the United States, but we must do everything in our power to guard against that possibility.


I am concerned about recent news reports and an internal USDA audit released in March which reveal potential problems with oversight of Chineseproduced organic products. Given recent horror stories involving, for example, children's jewelry made with cadmium, potent antibiotics in honey, and melamine in infant formula and other dairy products, we know that Chinese oversight of manufacturing and agriculture production often is lax and, as a result, many of the food and consumer products China exports to the United States do not meet our basic health and safety standards.


Time and again, we have seen Chinese companies and regulators commit egregious violations of essential health and safety practices. In July, reports surfaced that melaminetainted dairy products have again been found in Chinese stores despite a government crackdown on melamine in 2008, further throwing into question China's ability to enforce even the most basic food safety rules. For this reason, it is imperative that Chinese organic products receive extra scrutiny.


I urge USDA to review its system of oversight for foreign certifiers, especially those operating in China, to determine if current practices and resources are adequate to make certain that foreign organic products meet the same high standards as those produced domestically. Under the Obama administration, USDA has taken important steps to enhance certification of foreign organic products but more needs to be done to ensure that Chinese products are truly produced according to the rigorous standards of the organic program.  


I appreciate the strides this administration has taken to increase oversight and consistency in the organic program.  USDA's efforts to enhance and enforce the standards of the organic program are a step in the right direction and I urge you to continue to strengthen this program. However, given China's extremely poor track record on ensuring the safety and quality of its products, it is imperative that USDA thoroughly scrutinize its program to certify Chinese organic products to determine if it is managed and funded appropriately.  


In addition, it is my understanding that USDA has proposed changes to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) so that customs statistics will distinguish between organic and nonorganic imports.  I strongly support USDA's efforts in this regard.  Surprisingly, there is no way to track the volume and value of imported products labeled organic.  This is a huge gap in the system that hinders USDA oversight of foreign products certified under the U.S. organics program.  I intend to urge the International Trade Commission, the agency responsible for making changes to the HTS, to move forward expeditiously in response to USDA's proposal.  Please let me know if there are other ways my office can be of help on this issue and, in general, on improving oversight of the organics program.


Thank you for your attention to this request. I look forward to working with you to ensure the continued strength of the organic program. Please do not hesitate to contact Anne Fiala, on my staff, at 2246542, with any questions.





Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator