For those of us making a concerted effort to buy organic produce and food products whenever possible, some of the first things we look for are the USDA Certified Organic label, a produce SKU# starting with the number 9, or just the term “Certified Organic” anywhere on the package. For some, the validation stops there; for others (like myself), further investigation as to where the product’s place of origin is and/or any other processing or treatment has been conducted.
OK, so what does all of this have to do with the title and worrying about organic produce from other countries? Well, many times, I have clients tell me they go to buy organic produce in the store and see that it is from another country like Mexico, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, etc…. and not only does it raise concern over how fresh it could possibly be if it had to travel so far, but how safe it was. Questions frequently arise along the lines of: “How did this produce arrive here?” “If something from another country is labeled ‘organic’, how do I know that it is reliably organic?” “Can I trust that ‘organic’ produce from another country is safe to eat?” “Who produced this ‘internationally organic’ produce, how long ago, and under what conditions?”
Does “organic” from other countries mean the same as US organic standards? Are there other pesticides, pollution, fertilizers, and other things that exist in other countries that we need to be worried about if buying produce? I find this to be a completely reasonable concern, as unlike my fortunate opportunity to actually see where most of my organic produce came from when we lived in California (by driving by the plethora of organic farms nearby), it can be disconcerting to know you are buying something that traveled literally across the globe to reach you just because it’s marked organic. Is it that much better? Are all of those added natural resources used to get this produce here from a faraway place worth it when there are conventional options that came from a much shorter distance? First off, we import many organic produce items from other countries depending on the growing season. While many things (like grapes, apples, kiwi, avocados, bananas, etc.) may not be even native, not to mention in season here in the US, they are grown in plentiful amounts elsewhere around the world, and to many people’s surprise, to the same USDA standards (if not stricter) used here to certify foods. In regards to how far and long produce needs to travel to reach US shelves, that may still be a concern for some, but with advancements in shipping and transport modes, most produce can arrive within a few days, which is phenomenal if you ask me (and worth it to avoid the pesticides used on conventional US produce).
In fact, many countries are working in sync with the US to have synonymous certification standards to mainstream the process to cut back on paperwork, time spent clearing standards, etc. to ensure a more rapid import/export timeframe. According to FoodSafetyNews.com:
“…the organic certifying programs in the United States and Europe Union are now considered equivalent. The new partnership between the two largest organic producers in the world means that products certified organic under one certification scheme can be sold as organic in the other without additional certification and paperwork….The partnership recognizes that while the certification standards are compatible, there are some differences that need to be addressed. As a general rule, all products that meet the terms of the partnership may be traded and labeled as certified organic produce, meat, cereal, or wine. The major difference comes in the use of antibiotics. Under the agreement, U.S. apples and pears produced using antibiotics (to control fire blight) may not be exported to the EU, and EU meat and milk derived from animals treated with antibiotics may not be exported to the U.S. The terms of the partnership require the U.S. and EU to have regular discussions and to periodically review each other’s programs to ensure that the partnership agreement is being met.”
As I peruse the aisles in any store that sells organic produce, I am seeing an increasingly large number of fruits and vegetables from Mexico. From our southern-bordering country, the organic farming movement is taking off in strides to meet the growing demand abroad – namely from the US – which is a short trip across the border in many areas. While our governments may not see eye-to-eye on every issue, which raises concern for some shoppers, one thing to know is Mexican organic produce is being grown with stringent standards that meet USDA Certified Organic clearance. A great article from a 2011 edition of The Sound Consumer, author Lolla Millholland writes:
“Americans may not realize how extensively Mexico contributes to our fruit and vegetable consumption. In 2007, we imported 3.2 million metric tons of vegetables and 1.8 million metric tons of fruit from our southern neighbor1.
The organic foods we import from Mexico can be divided into three categories: tropical products (such as coffee, cacao [chocolate], vanilla, agave, mangoes, bananas and avocados, which are cultivated minimally, if ever, in temperate climates), vegetables and fruits (such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, melons and grapes, which supplement our supply when domestic production slackens), and labor-intensive crops (such as sesame seeds)….
For a food to be sold as certified organic in the United States — whether grown in the United States, in Mexico, or anywhere else in the world — it must meet all the requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. It must be produced without the use of toxic synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or irradiation. Perhaps most important, it must be certified by a USDA-accredited agency.
Certification includes inspection of farm fields and processing facilities, detailed record keeping of what inputs were applied to the land, and, if there’s cause for concern, soil and water testing. Currently, at least 15 organic certification agencies operate in Mexico3. The National Organic Program (NOP) has been enforced since October 2002, when the United States implemented the Organic Food Production Act. In February 2006, the Mexican government published its own Law of Organic Products and is issuing regulations soon4. The credibility of the certified USDA organic label stems from ongoing oversight that can and has penalized lawbreakers. On-farm audits and regular border inspections are vital components of organic certification and food safety testing….Covilli (a Mexican family-run organic farm that supplies produce to the US) has taken food safety precautions very seriously. The farm is certified organic and for food safety by Primus Labs, a company based in Santa Maria, Calif., with offices throughout North and South America. It conducts microbiological testing for E.coli and salmonella and chemical testing for pesticides. Joe Hardiman, PCC’s produce buyer, says, ‘I would have surgery in one of their warehouses. It’s that anatomically clean.’ The USDA has begun more regular and extensive testing at border inspections to combat food safety threats. Most Mexican produce travels to the United States via truck and when a truck is set aside for scrutiny, you can’t move the product until the lab results return.”
To see a complete list of the countries we have organic trade and standards agreements with, the USDA website has a great handout that specifically lists everything in an easy-to-read format (please check it out!): http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5089061
To further one’s understanding of where your food is grown and the standards in which are followed, on the flip side of international organic import and exports, many times, you can find produce at local farmers’ markets that is just as good as certified organic, but the small-scale farmer cannot afford the USDA certification process to have it labelled as such. The best way to know the quality of this type of produce is to know the farmer, the farm, the location of the farm, and if there are any pollutant concerns in the immediate farm area. I bring this up because many times, you can save tons of money on local, freshly picked organically-raised produce that is also supporting local farmers…a majority of these farmers follow the stringent organic guidelines that the USDA requires, but find it economically stifling to have the USDA approve their organic status. That’s not to say that there are some farmers out there who claim to be “organic” and really do not follow true USDA organic standards (to see a full list of what standards go into USDA organic standards, click on this link: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=ORGANIC_CERTIFICATIO). So again, it’s best to know the farmer and ask questions about whether the produce is grown using ANY spraying at all, synthetic fertilizers, source of irrigation, surrounding environment of the farm (is it near a highway, waste plant, commercial area, etc.?). When we lived in California, we drove by many of the farms that grew organic produce but did not have it labelled by the USDA and I was completely comfortable buying from these farmers (as we also got to know them). While I know this is not a possibility for many, it’s something to consider if the opportunity arises for any of you.
My hopes are that this article debunked any myths you heard about the quality of imported organic produce from other countries when considering it as an option at the store or market. Sometimes these fruits and veggies are priced fairly or provides us with a healthy food when it normally cannot be grown here in the US. While buying as local as possible is best, it’s not always an option, and I’d rather go with something organic and from far away than more local and conventional in the literal sense (a.k.a. pesticide-ridden and non-sustainable, with the exclusion of local, organically-raised produce from genuine farmers you know and trust who cannot afford the USDA certification label). It may seem like a paradox, and I’m definitely weighing the odds with fossil fuels used for transport, sustainability, etc., but that’s just me, and it’s totally fine if you decide otherwise. In fact, I try to buy only available organic from the US as much as possible, but sometimes imported is all that’s available. It’s never an easy decision to make, as we have all experienced at some point along our “healthy” journeys, but as long as you are making a well-informed decision based on facts and credibility (mixed with some of your priceless gut-intuition), then all you can do is what you can with what you have (as cliché and easier-said-than-done as that may sound).
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us