The Consumer Council announced earlier that some organic vegetables were found to contain pesticide residues and heavy metals. Excessive chlorpyrifos was detected in a sample of organic purple sweet potato imported from the Mainland, while cadmium content in an organic carrot sample imported from the U.S. almost reached the legal limit. What are the potential causes?
In theory, an organic farm should meet a set of organic agriculture and production standards. For example, farms are in good environmental conditions (e.g. soil); material inputs must be organic or harmless to the environment (e.g. no use of synthetic chemical pesticides); and organic and non-organic production must be separated. Farms have to pass the assessments by independent certification organizations before organic certifications are granted.
However, media in China once reported dummy moves of certified organic farms. Some certified farms have not done what they need to do in accordance with the certification criteria. This reflects that if a certification body cannot perform its gate-keeping role well, food quality assurance will be compromised no matter how stringent the certification criteria are.
2) Environmental Contamination?
Although the environmental conditions of an organic food farm must be good, it is hard to reach “zero pollution”. Nowadays, the global environment is subject to some extent of pollution. In this connection, organic food production sites are also likely contaminated with trace amounts of heavy metals and pesticides. These substances can accumulate in agricultural crops, but in very low levels, and normally won’t exceed the legal tolerance levels.
3) Food Fraud?
With the help of organic certification labels affixed on the pre-packaged food, consumers can identify an organic food. However, it has been reported that certification labels were deceptively used in non-organic foods.
On the other hand, organic food may also be sold in loose packs (e.g. organic vegetables) and without any certification labels at all. If retailers wrongly claim that non-organic foods as organic foods, consumers cannot differentiate an organic food from non-organic food by appearance of the food.
Protecting Consumers’ Interest
1) Strengthen Certified Enterprise Audit
Certification body shall conduct on-site audit to a certified farm (or a certified organic food processing plant) at least once per year. However, advance notification will be done before the audit. Depending on the risk level of a certified enterprise, certification body should increase the number of inspections and conduct unannounced audits whenever appropriate.
2) Regular Food Testing
As mentioned above, organic food is not a food free from any contamination. In order to verify the food safety, regular testing of food for harmful substances (e.g. heavy metals and pesticides) must be done.
3) Strengthen Sales Management
Certified enterprises should maintain records of production and sales of organic food. Whenever an organic food is sold, it will be recorded down to make sure that the sales amount matches the production capacity. This helps to prevent someone substituting organic foods with non-organic foods.
Moreover, organic food certification label on pre-packaged food should have security features and enable traceability (e.g. QR code). Regarding the loose pack of organic food, they should be sold in specialized counters or shops, and clearly separated from non-organic foods.
Last but not least, retailers should also keep records of importing organic foods and the relevant proofs of food origin. This is essential to ensure the products are in line with the descriptions of documents, and allows customers to make inquiries.