Oct 1, 2010

Discussions on organic tea (2) organic certification in China

Discussion (1) is here.

Why I am interested in learning about organic certifications in China -
For various reasons, I don't often buy certified organic tea. My purchase preferences often lean toward tea sources with good agricultural integrity and solid quality. Most of such sources are not certified organic and don't even have the intention to get certified. But still, I believe it's important for tea professionals to stay keen on movement of organic certification. I believe it benefits producer, consumer and the entire market if organic certification is further improved and popularized. After all, certification is the ultimate way for a consumer to know if a product is really "organic", aside from visiting the farm in person (which may still not provide as much information as would a certification institute).

China's current government organic certification standards were made in 2005, closely following the standards of US and European Union. But so far, the organic food industry of China is still at "training" stage and needs to be improved in various aspects.

For tea sold in international market, obviously Chinese certification is not enough. Currently, most high quality tea in Chinese export goes to European countries, Japan and US. Therefore, many Chinese tea manufacturers are working on obtaining organic certifications from these import countries. On many organic products, a commonly raised question among consumers is, How do we know it's really organic? Most of the time, the consumers would turn to the organic certification. Well-established certification institutions (such as USPS/NOP) promise us that they inspect facilities and products based on the same set of strict standards, no matter where the facilities are located or the products are from. There is always criticism on even the most authoritative organic certification institutions. But I guess, if we want any market rules at all on organic products, these well-established institutes are our best bets.

Some international organic certifications frequently seen in China - 
Here are some of the most influential international organic certifications frequently seen in China:
1. USDA National Organic Program. 
It's well accepted in US and many other countries. 

2. Organic certification by JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standards). Japan is not a large importer for Chinese tea overall, but it's one of the largest importing countries for Chinese tea products of highest quality. Therefore JAS certification is important to many Chinese companies targeting on higher end export market.

3. European Union organic certification.  

All above are certifications authorized by government agencies or international government union (EU). In Taiwan, MOA is a good example of organic certification given by a reputable international NGO.


MOA organic certification is not regulated by government laws. But MOA International is one of the earliest and most reputable NGO in Japan that advocates organic farming. MOA certification is well accepted in Japan and some other Asian countries. Japan is one of the largest export market of Taiwan tea. Localization of MOA in Taiwan makes organic education and certification more convenient for Taiwanese tea farmers and consumers. Therefore MOA has become the most popular organic certification for tea and some other food products in Taiwan.  

Challenges and potential problems of international organic certifications on Chinese tea products - 
1. Most top notch tea is from family-owned plantations or small factories, many of which, for various reasons, are not likely to apply for organic certification in near future. 

2. Many high quality tea products are not universally packaged on site of production facility. On one hand, this can make the organic certification of a loose leaf tea product less visible to consumers. On the other hand, this makes it more challenging for consumers to find out specific organic certification information of a product. When I buy tea in China, if a manufacturer claims their tea is certified organic, I always ask them to show me the certification document. The certification code on such a document can be used to trace certification information (such as expiration date, address of the plantation, total area of the certified fields, category of the product and legal representative of the plantation, ) with the institution that issues the organic certification.

3. International organic certification rules may have potential conflicts with the social economic structure of China. I didn't notice much of this until recently, when reading about OCIA International's organic certification issues in China. It was considered a conflict of interest by USDA that OCIA uses their Chinese cooperating agency, which is affiliated to Chinese government, to inspect state-owned farms for organic certification. Before reading about this, I hadn't thought much about problems of this kind. But now the OCIA case has made me realize that it's probably one of the largest potential problems of international organic certification in China. The political system of China is entirely different from US and most other tea import countries. All the lands are state-owned and therefore all the farms, to a larger or smaller degree, are state-owned. To completely eliminate the conflict of interest issue, it's basically necessary that all agencies dealing with USDA/NOP certification are independent from Chinese government. But then it can be a problem that where these agencies should be from. People don't perfectly trust their governments. But as the concept of organic certification is fairly new in China, it will be challenging for local manufacturers to trust a private sector that, without government endorsement, represents a foreign certification agency. Of course such problems will not block the market trends. In spite of all the itches and complaints, US companies will still keep importing Chinese organic products, and Chinese manufactures are still willing to go through all the troubles to obtain USDA organic certification. But the political barriers may further discourage some smaller-size tea companies to obtain international organic certification.


Marlena said...

An excellent article, I learned a lot - well done!

Ho Go said...

Lately, demons have been whispering in my ear about the false claims made by both Chinese and Taiwanese farmers who claim 'organic' both certified and not certified. Perhaps the tea business has passed the critical mass point where the money equation is overwhelming everything else including personal integrity. I really don't know what to believe at this point, Ginkgo. Is it possible that only US and Euro certification will make believers out of us and restore Chinese integrity back into the marketplace? Can certification from any tea country be trusted when big business is involved?

Gingko said...

Hi Ho Go, about your question of using US and Euro certification (I would add Japan since it's a big tea country), I would say "of course". It's not about trust, it's about market rule (well it' about trust too). The organic certification is supposed to be from an internationally-recognized institution.

The city farm in my city uses full set of organic practice, but can't afford USDA organic certification. They would demonstrate their farm operations as much as they can to the community, and they invite academicians from University of Massachusetts to give them inspection and testimonial. Their products are adored by local people. But still they can't put "organic" label on their products, because an organic label means "certified organic by an authoritative agency".

Whether or not to trust an organic source is a personal choice and sometimes such judgment can be made by getting more information about the source and details of their organic certification. But I believe if the current organic certification system can be further completed and improved, the buyers and sellers can leave most judgments to professionals within the system. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers.

Ho Go said...

I'm familiar with the small U.S. farmer who grows organically but doesn't want to pay for the certification. It's expensive.

In Asia, we hear about the same thing, but, outright lying about it is common.

Because the Japanese are a large tea producing country, I imagine funny business also takes place as human nature (greed) is universal. Their teas should be tested by U.S. and Euro organizations. However, I wouldn't mind the Japanese testing teas grown outside their country (Chinese, Indian, Taiwanese etc.)This would eliminate bias unless they had it in for any of these countries. :)

Gingko said...

What I mean by mentioning the farmer who couldn't afford certification is, it's ok to "say" their products use organic practice (and buyers should be aware it's not "certified" and use their own judgment). It's not ok to "label" a product "organic" when it's not certified. Basically it's illegal in US but in China there is no law yet regulating the details of product labeling. If a manufacture says their product is organic but don't have certification, I would treat their products the same as non-organic ones. Many Chinese manufactures, even though they don't mean to lie, don't even have the same definition for organic as the international organic standards.

It also happened to me in China for a few times that some manufactures claimed they had USDA or other certification. But when I asked for the certification documents, they never showed up. Maybe they do have it and just don't want to talk to me any more :-p but without seeing the documents, I wouldn't take it for granted that their products are organic. I think if a seller wants certified organic products that can be sold in US or Europe, the best option is still dealing with Chinese larger (and expensive) companies that can present all proper documents.

I had a short visit in Japan and was very much impressed how tasty and clean their vegetable and fruits are (and very expensive due to their agricultural policy). I think probably inspection standards in Japan are stricter than US standards.

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