Thanks to the Consumerist for a heads up on the sudden decision last week by health foods chain Trader Joe’s to stop selling “single ingredient” organic foods—like beans or tea or leafy veggies—imported from China.


It does seem a bit like piling on. Our friends at the Consumerist theorize that the California-based firm has simply capitulated to xenophobia in the face of a serious and growing list of dangerous Chinese-made products.

“Though the announcement – the first of its kind among major retailers – will not make consumers any safer, it is the most pernicious indication yet of consumers skepticism towards foreign goods.”

But a careful organic shopper has reason to be concerned about imported organic food, particularly from pesticide-happy China. In a quick overview, Business Week sumarized the concerns:

Critics claim China’s fledgling organic industry is plagued by lax standards, inadequate oversight, exploitation of workers, and practices such as using human waste to fertilize fields, which isn’t the kind of “organic” the USDA and most consumers support. One U.S. consultant working there considers meeting U.S. Agriculture Dept. standards a joke, since “U.S. laws do not work in China.”

China launched organic food production in the 1990s. The sector exploded after high levels of pesticide, heavy metals and lead in Chinese tea depressed imports to the European Union. According to World Watch, Western food companies promoting organic foods for export are largely responsible for the development of organic farms producing roughly 200 different kinds of organic foods. Standards are relatively recent.

In 2003, SEPA’s Organic Food Development Center, in cooperation with the German Technical Cooperation group (GTZ), developed China’s first organic certification standards, which were later recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, the world’s leading organics oversight body. In early 2005, in an effort to further standardize these labels and ensure high organic standards, the Certification and Accreditation Administration of China developed the first Chinese National Standards for Organic Produce. Beginning in mid-2006, this National Standard label will be required on all organic foods alongside any international certifications and should help standardize and improve the exportability of China’s organic market.

So the country’s organic standards are relatively recent, and its safety systems for assuring that products meet its own and international standards are weak. The world has known the danger of lead since the turn of the 20th century, and lead at levels recently discovered in Chinese-made toys has long been banned in both Europe and the U.S. It is not completely unreasonable to shy away from Chinese made products, and may not imediately indicate xenophobia in careful, organic-seeking consumers.
That said, while avoiding Chinese-made products may provide a short-term feeling of security, an increasing share of our foods, products, and drugs are manufactured overseas–in many different countries with weak regulatory structures. Our own regulatory protections–after years of budget cuts and staff reductions–need to be stronger just to oversee products and foods made right here in the U.S.
Real security lies not in the elimination of any particular country’s produce from our plates but in a stronger system for detecting and eliminating problem foods from shipments headed for our shores, even before they leave the originating country. That’s one reason why we support increased resources for the Food and Drug Administration, additional testing of imported foods, and want to give federal agencies the authority to recall tainted foods (authority they lack today) when found on store shelves.