Is organic testing plan good enough? - The Packer

Is organic testing plan good enough?

11/15/2012 09:38:00 AM
Tom Karst

National Editor Tom KarstScanning the Web, there is mostly just the facts reporting on the USDA's new rule on organic testing.

Here is a summary of the final rule, which is effective Jan. 1, 2013:

This final rule clarifies a provision of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the regulations issued thereunder that requires periodic residue testing of organically produced agricultural products by accredited certifying agents. The final rule amends the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) regulations to make clear that accredited certifying agents must conduct periodic residue testing of agricultural products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as ``100 percent organic,'' ``organic,'' or ``made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)).'' The final rule expands the amount of residue testing of organically produced agricultural products by clarifying that sampling and testing are required on a regular basis. The final rule requires that certifying agents, on an annual basis, sample and conduct residue testing from a minimum of five percent of the operations that they certify. This action will help further ensure the integrity of products produced and handled under the NOP regulations.

The Packer's own coverage drew a reader comment from Mischa Popoff, who has been something of a squeaky wheel about the lack of USDA testing up to this point.

Popoff, of the "Is it organic?" moniker, wrote:

In order to prevent cheating, all testing in the organic industry must occur prior to harvest. There’s little point wasting time or money testing post-harvest.

The reason is that with the exception of genetically-modified organisms, almost everything else that's prohibited in organic production dissipates and eventually becomes undetectable over time. Whether it’s herbicides, pesticides, hormones, improperly-composted manure, or the big-money-maker: synthetic nitrogen, only an unannounced inspection and field test will deter fraud and gross negligence. After all, Olympic athletes are tested before and during the games, not after.

As for the cost being $500 per test, I must strenuously disagree. I performed broad-spectrum field tests on organic crops when I was an active IOIA organic inspector for as little as $125. Surely a certifier recognized by the USDA to audit organic farmers and processors will be able to get as good or better a price.

On that note, instead of ADDING organic field testing to the existing system of record-keeping and record-checking - which costs upwards of $2,000 up-front per-farm - field testing should REPLACE record-keeping and record-checking, and thereby bring down the cost of organic certification.

Lastly, there is still the outstanding issue of "royalties" being collected by USDA-accredited certifiers. How can we expect companies that oversee the USDA National Organic Program to be objective if they stand to collect 1-3% of a farmer's GROSS revenue from each transaction they certify? Organic field testing must be carried out by independent inspectors, not by certifiers which have a vested interest in pushing more product to market.



TK: Field testing would create a higher standard, no doubt. For me, I would have hoped that USDA would publish all the testing information gathered in a single public database. Any information about organic testing will only obtained with great effort, it appears. This part of the rule explains:

AMS does not intend to integrate results into a single dataset, as was requested by some commenters. To minimize the reporting burden for certifying agents, this final rule does not require that certifying agents submit copies of test results to the Administrator; however, certifying agents continue to be required to report certain test results that are found in excess of federal regulatory tolerances or action levels for pesticide residues or environmental contaminants to the appropriate health agency under the section 205.670(g).

This final rule does not require reporting of testing data to the Administrator since this action is not intended as a data collection mechanism to draw conclusions about residues in organic products in general. AMS will verify compliance of certifying agents with this rule under the existing requirements for accreditation as discussed in the response to comments on Reporting Requirements. The NOP also notes that this final rule does not amend the existing requirement that results of all analyses and tests performed under section 205.670 be made available for public access, unless the testing is part of an ongoing compliance investigation. The public may access sampling results obtained by certifying agents under the existing regulations.


Do readers think the USDA testing program is sufficient as published in the final rule?

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Steve Savage    
Encinitas, CA  |  November, 29, 2012 at 11:30 PM

I was disappointed that this testing will not make any contribution to the comparison of pesticide residues between organic and conventional crops. As you noted there really won't be any transparent summary of the results. Also, I wrote to the contact people at USDA to ask if the testing will include residues of organically approved pesticides. I was particularly interested to know about residues of copper-based fungicides. The answer was that this is just about compliance so there will be no measurement of the most likely things to be found on the crop. It would have been nice to have data about Bt residues on organic to show to the people who are freaked out about Bt in GMO crops. The only real value I can see coming out of this could be for the imports - particularly non-perishable stuff from places like China. However, the fact that it isn't a random testing regime and that it is left to the discretion of the certifier - even that segment may not be meaningfully assessed.

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