(UPDATED COVERAGE, June 17) U.S. agriculture regulators barred an organic food certifier from operating in China for at least one year after an audit revealed conflicts of interest with the Chinese government.

The certifier  — OCIA International, or Organic Crop Improvement Association — had Chinese government employees, rather than independent inspectors, performing inspections at state-owned organic farms, U.S. regulators said, citing an August 2007 audit.

“It created a conflict of interest since the inspectors were also employees of the land owner,” said Sam Jones-Ellard, a spokesman for the National Organic Program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

OCIA, a nonprofit group based in Lincoln, Neb., was one of the USDA’s top organic inspectors in China, responsible for certifying U.S.-bound fruits, vegetables, rice and other products from about 231 farms and processors.

As part of a settlement with the USDA announced today, OCIA can apply for re-accreditation as a certifying agent in China after one year and must hire inspectors “who have no connection to any governmental or quasi-governmental Chinese entity,” according to a USDA statement today.

OCIA anticipated the USDA’s action and shut most of its Chinese operations last year, the New York Times reported today.

The settlement raises more questions over whether organic products imported into the U.S. in recent years actually met federal standards, following a separate audit
released in March that showed long-running lapses in government oversight.

Foreign organic inspection agents went several years without onsite reviews from U.S. regulators, according to the audit.

Auditors also found the USDA failed to conduct spot testing of organically grown foods for pesticides or take action against companies that were improperly marketing products as certified organic.

While China is among the largest agricultural products importers to the U.S., there is no data available on the country’s organic shipments.
 
American consumers should not be concerned whether organic products from China meet U.S. standards, said Barbara Haumann, a spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association. The Greenfield, Mass.-based association is the U.S. organic industry's primary trade group.
 
“All products sold as organic in the U.S. must meet (National Organic Program) standards,” Haumann said in an e-mail. “With increased funding and staffing resources, NOP is equippped to oversee that standards are being met in products coming from China and any other part of the world.”

The USDA is expanding oversight of foreign certifying agents as it tries to bolster consumer confidence in organic products, said Rayne Pegg, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the organic program.

“It is critical that we maintain the integrity of organic products for consumers,” Pegg said in the USDA release.

“All certifiers and operations, domestic or foreign, must be held to the same standards,” Pegg said in the release. “We will remain vigilant to make sure that products labeled as organic meet the standards prescribed by law.”

The USDA, which relies on private organizations to conduct organic inspections in foreign countries, will still have nine accredited organic certifiers in China, spokesman Jones-Ellard said in the release. Those certifiers include Oregon Tilth Certified Organic, as well as groups based in Australia and Germany.

OCIA retains its accreditation for certifying organic products in other countries including Canada and Mexico, the USDA said today.