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USDA pulls the plug on organic certifying firm in China

by Joan Murphy | June 15, 2010
WASHINGTON -- One of the larger organic certifying companies was banned from operating in China June 14 after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the company used inspectors employed by the Chinese government for third-party inspections.

The latest action comes after a two-year probe into the company. Starting in August 2007, USDA conducted an on-site audit of the Organic Crop Improvement Association in China and found that it used inspectors connected to the Chinese government to police government-owned farms. Farms are supposed to be checked by independent auditors under USDA rules. In July 2008, USDA proposed revoking the Organic Crop Improvement Association's accreditation in China, but the association settled the charges with USDA this month.

As part of the settlement, the association would be able to apply for re- accreditation as a certifying agent in China after one year. The association retains its accreditation for certification in other countries including the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The company said it is one of the larger organic certification agencies in the world and was the first international certification body to operate in China in 1995. China exports organic tea, soybeans, vegetables and cereals, according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

"It is critical that we maintain the integrity of organic products for consumers," Rayne Pegg, Agriculture Marketing Services administrator, said in a June 14 press statement. "All certifiers and operations, domestic or foreign, must be held to the same standards. We will remain vigilant to make sure that products labeled as organic meet the standards prescribed by law."

USDA said it plans to expand oversight of foreign certifying agents and organic operations.

But U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) chastised USDA for taking too long to act to ban the company in China.

"It is very disappointing that USDA's ban on the Organic Crop Improvement Association from operating in China is occurring nearly two years after the department attempted to initiate the ban," she said. "This is far too long to wait, especially considering it is absolutely essential that USDA uphold the rigorous standards and integrity of the organic food label."