Guide to the Best Shanghai Imported Organic Food

Interest in Shanghai imported organic food is at an all-time high.

Consumer products are full of chemicals. As a consequence we come in contact with chemicals all day; huge amounts in our food, in the air we breathe, in our health and beauty products, in the fibers of our clothes, seeping from plastic containers or in that fine mist of fragrance sprayed in some 'high-class' hotels and malls around Shanghai.

Within a very short time chemicals have become a dominating fact of life. 

There are  a number of reasons why Shanghai expats may seek to reduce their chemical exposure, and switch to healthier products while here:

  • Often it is those with a new family, worrying about what is best for their baby.
  • It is people with health problems, especially skin problems and allergies.
  • It is expats who simply care about the environment.

Overall, the food quality issue in China is probably the primary motivation for Shanghai expats to seek out healthier products with less chemicals. 

Below we look at your best choice; organic products in Shanghai.

We also have a list of local and imported organic food in Shanghai at the end of the article.

Shanghai Imported Organic Food: Making the Switch

Once you decide to switch to healthier products you will find that inside the store, in front of the shelf, matters are all of a sudden not quite that simple.

There is a proliferation of products out there claiming "Natural", "Organic", "Healthy", "Green", "Eco", "made with", you name it.

A lot of these claims are confusing, unsubstantiated or even purposely misleading. So your next question is: How to choose?

A good recommendation for Shanghai expats is generally to choose organic products; both for food and non-food products as both are sources of chemical exposure.

For practical purposes, we define an organic product as a product with organic certification.

In all major organic markets in the world, you will find standard regulations and third-party certification for organic product claims.

These third party certifiers will audit and survey a vast amount of documentation related to the manufacturing site, the manufacturing process, the strict separation from non-certifiable chemical materials and also the raw material origins, in order to verify that the quality as well as the percentage of organic ingredients meets the requirements for organic certification.

Furthermore, organic certifiers will regulate the advertising of "Organic" on the product labels, a very important function of regulatory oversight. 

While manufacturers can be certified as "organic processors", an organic certification is ultimately product-related. That means an organic certification logo should be displayed on the product label, not just on the website or promotion literature.

If you can't find it on the label it is not certified. 

For Shanghai imported organic food look for globally-recognized certifications like USDA Organic, UK Soil Association, Cosmos, ACO (Australian Certified Organic) and others.

Are Chinese Organic Foods Safe?

In China there is a huge amount of "flexibility" concerning what can be put on a label. As a consequence products made locally in China still have an image of doubtful integrity.

This also goes for China Organic standards which have been in place for around 10 years, but are overall not very well trusted. 

In Shanghai we see an increasing amount of locally produced organic foods on the shelves. They are certainly preferable to non-organic locally grown and manufactured foods, but they can not be said to be as safe as imported organic foods in China, at least currently.

Organic certification for food or non food products certifies a process, but not necessarily other product attributes like heavy metal content.

Moreover, like many western standards; Chinese standards do not ensure organic products are entirely free of residues of prohibited chemical pesticides, since exposure from the atmosphere and ground water is not regulated strictly.

Even if the rain coming down on the crops is full of pollution, or discharge from nearby factories finds its way to the fields, as long as the farmer is not using prohibited chemicals their crops can still be certified as organic.

In these last ten years, China has already ramped up their organic crop land to about two million hectares, more than 5 percent of global organic land. However, China has an overall environment that defies belief in clean and true organic cultivation.

Land suffers from massive erosion and desertification, and is poor in fresh water. According to the China Daily, in 2011 more than half of the country's largest lakes and rivers were so polluted that their water was unfit for human consumption. Forests cover only about 15 percent of China, compared to 50 percent and more in many western countries.

China is the world's largest producer and user of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, putting a heavy burden of contamination on ground water due to run-off.

Cleaning up China's Soil for Organic Farming

The government is facing up to this issue and released stricter pesticide residue guidelines to improve food safety. 

But it is sure to take some time before farmers take heed and regulators enforce them effectively.

Like many western country standards, China requires three years of soil cleaning before crops grown in them can be certified as organic. However, with the much higher degree of soil degradation and pollution here, it is questionable if this is enough time.

China, therefore, needs to do more to clean up its overall environment before its organic products can meet western standards.

Tony's Farm is an organic producer near Shanghai

Land Zoning for Organic Farms in China

China doesn't have a clearly enforced national land zoning plan. Therefore industry, chemical factories, golf courses, high-rises, fast growing urban areas, highways, waste dumps and agricultural land intermingle freely to create the patchwork landscape you can see from the high speed bullet trains as you leave Shanghai for the countryside.

Many of Shanghai's earliest certified Organic farms can be found in Pudong, not far from other industry and power plants.

One interesting experiment the Shanghai government has been implementing for Land Zoning is Chongming Island, a national development zone for sustainable green development, which has recently been recognized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

This island is about 90 minutes by car from downtown Shanghai. Several newer organic farms are located here. 

Tests on soil quality in recent years have shown the soil in Chongming Island is cleaner than other parts of Shanghai, but still needs improvement.

Shanghai Imported Organic Food

Shanghai expats may, therefore, prefer imported organic products from high integrity sources; the US, the EU, Australia and New Zealand to name a few.

However, there are many obstacles to buying imported organic food in Shanghai. The Chinese government doesn't recognize foreign organic certifications and requires products to be re-certified in China.

Foreign organic producers must go through a complicated and long process, as well as invest up to US$50,000 to obtain China organic certification, quite a burden for organic producers who are usually much smaller than multi-nationals.

Equivalent organic certification in the US would cost less than $1,000, while in Europe and other western countries the investment needed to be organic certified is also much less than that required in China.

Imported organic products that have been re-certified in China have a small China organic sticker affixed to the label. If imported organic products have not been re-certified, they must place stickers on top of the word "organic" to cover it up and comply with local advertising laws.

This process is mainly a trade barrier and adds nothing to the integrity of organic products. It only drives up the price and limits availability of healthy products in China.

The Chinese government has recently signed an agreement with Great Britain to simplify re-certification of its organic products, so hopefully the costs will come down for all imported organic foods in China soon.

In the meantime, the Shanghai consumer might choose overseas certified organic food, with or without the China organic re-certification.

About the Author

Rudi Messner has been living in Shanghai since 1996 and has been working in FMCG for more than 20 years.

After leaving the chemical company he worked for, Rudi became passionate about the environment, health, and organic products.

He co-founded Cedar Essentials, a Shanghai based importer of natural and organic products, and the Zotter Organic Chocolate Theatre.

Zotter produces 100 percent bean to bar, 100 percent fair-trade and 100 percent organic chocolate. You can taste about 250 different flavors of chocolate while joining the tour at their chocolate theatre near the Huangpu river in Shanghai.

Bentley Organic Hair Care and Personal Care is imported from the UK and certified organic by the UK SOIL Association.

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