The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday it has banned one of the leading American inspectors of organic foods in China over conflict of interest concerns.

The now-banned firm, the Organic Crop Improvement Association (O.C.I.A.) of Nebraska, which had been certified by the USDA to inspect organic farms, was using Chinese government employees to inspect state-owned farms growing products destined to be exported to the U.S. wearing the USDA organic seal.

organic-apples-featured.jpgSeveral newspapers reported that O.C.I.A. products were used to manufacture products for Whole Foods, the leading organic retailer in the U.S.

To be compliant with USDA organic rules, inspections are supposed to be conducted by independent, third-party firms to avoid conflict of interest. Whole Foods reportedly dropped O.C.I.A. as a certifier last year. The USDA has been trying to revoke O.C.I.A.’s authority since 2007, but the organization appealed the move.

“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,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in response to the news yesterday. “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.”

“The USDA announcement also is an unfortunate reminder that foods that are labeled ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean they are automatically safe, so USDA must continue to be vigilant,” added DeLauro, a longtime champion for more stringent food safety laws in the House. “Consumers of organic products should have faith in USDA to uphold the production standards associated with the organic label no matter the country of origin.”