A new rule designed to bolster the integrity of next year’s organic holiday food by testing for pesticides and contaminants may be too weak to be effective.
Beginning in January, food inspectors in the U.S. will be required to test for at least one prohibited substance in one out of every 20 certified farms and processing facilities certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Decisions about the products and facilities to be tested will be made by outside inspectors, who are paid by farmers and processors for organic certifications. Because the USDA doesn’t plan to track the results, consumers -- who pay a premium for food assumed to be free of additives -- will be less able to make informed judgments about food purity, according to Charles Benbrook, member of a USDA advisory committee on biotechnology and agriculture.
“It’s an opportunity missed to do something meaningful on the question of pesticides in organic food and food in general,” said Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. “It’s the kind of behavior you might expect from an accountant who’s trying to protect the client rather than solve a problem.”
The flaws in the testing regime reveal the challenges faced by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which serves as both a booster of organic food and a guarantor of standards in the sector. The program relies on third-party certifiers -- an amalgamation of private businesses, non-profits and local government agencies -- to make sure that farmers and food processors follow record-keeping and production requirements needed to meet organic standards.
Most certifiers currently don’t survey farms for pesticides or other substances prohibited by the organic program, which include genetically modified foodstuffs, synthetic hormones, arsenic, herbicides and antibiotics, unless there are suspicions of non-compliance.
The rollout of the new testing mandate was triggered by a 2010 USDA report which found that none of four certifiers visited by agency investigators conducted periodic testing on the approximately 5,000 farms and processing facilities they inspected, even though such tests are required by a 1990 law governing the production of organic food.
“There was no assurance that certifying agents performed regular periodic testing at any of the approximately 28,000 certified organic operations worldwide,” the report found. “Without such testing, the potential exists that an operation’s products may contain substances that are prohibited for use in organic products.”
The number of operations worldwide covered by the testing requirement has increased to more than 30,000 since the report was issued. About 60 percent of those facilities are in the U.S.
The new inspection rule was published “to further ensure organic integrity,” Soo Kim, a spokeswoman for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which includes the NOP, said in an e-mailed statement. “It wasn’t the intent to draw broad-based conclusions across specific commodities or category of products.”
The organic industry is among the fastest growing segments in agriculture. Sales in 2011 totaled $29.2 billion, compared with $6.1 billion in 2000, and now account for about 4.2 percent of all food sales, according to the Brattleboro, Vermont-based Organic Trade Association.
Consumers typically pay 30 percent to 100 percent more for organic food products, according to David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Maryland-based market research service.
The USDA estimates that tests of soil, water, waste or food products will cost about $500 each, with a total annual expense to certifiers of $750,000.
The testing program invites conflict of interest because certifiers who have a financial relationship with producers pick which operations and products will be examined as well as which prohibited substances will be tested for, said Arthur Harvey, a blueberry farmer in Hartford, Maine. In 2005, Harvey successfully sued the USDA to restrict synthetic additives in organic food.
“Do you think they’re going to test the ones that are doubtful?” Harvey said. “The selection of which products to test should be done by an independent consumer group.”
There’s also a danger that certifiers will test for items they know aren’t present, he said.
“That’s such a tiny, tiny program,” Harvey said. “It’s as minimal as it’s possible to make it.”
Patricia Kane, coordinator of the Port Crane, New York-based Accredited Certifiers Association Inc., a trade group for organic inspection companies, said the growth of the industry blunts concerns about certifiers being motivated to look the other way out of concerns they’ll lose business.
“There’s no shortage of clients,” said Kane, whose group represents 44 of 93 certifiers accredited by the USDA.
The rule requires inspectors to report pesticide residues or other contaminants that exceed limits set by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to federal authorities.
Otherwise, inspectors are supposed to keep results on file, available to the public if requested.
By failing to collect the data, the agriculture department is falling short of its obligation to continuously improve organic standards, Benbrook said.
“It’s going to be more difficult to focus on the few residues that do pose risk,” Benbrook said. “Organic food is far safer than conventional when it comes to pesticide levels, but USDA still owes it to the organic consumer to do everything it can to bring the risk level as close to zero as possible.”