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USDA announces new organic certification rule in Federal Register

USDA announces testing of 5 percent of nation's organic foods will begin in 2013. Tests will be performed by agencies that currently certify organic farms for USDA Organic Seal. Critics say testing should be expanded to include more farms during the crop growing season.    

A USDA audit that found that agencies monitoring organic food producers were not conducting periodic testing for pesticide residues has led to new rules requiring such tests on 5 percent of organic foods, the Agriculture Department announced.

In a Federal Register notice, USDA said that agencies that certify organic producers must begin testing for residues on at least 5 percent of organic farms next year. The tests, estimated to cost $500 each, would be paid for by the certifying organizations, not their clients.

Under current USDA regulations, organic food producers receive an initial inspection before being certified and allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal. But no one follows up to make sure the farms do not apply synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other materials not permitted in organic farming operations.

The new requirement will help protect the integrity of the $30-billion-a-year organic food industry, USDA officials said. Periodic testing for prohibited residues will prevent the mislabeling of organic foods in the nation's supermarkets.

While the new USDA regulations will help, they don’t go far enough to ensure that all organic farmers are playing by the rules, according to critics who have been following the ongoing debate on the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Program or NOP.

Other 95 percent?

“The USDA recently announced plans to begin testing 5 percent of the farms and processors it certifies under its decade-old National Organic Program,” said Mischa Popoff, a former organic farm inspector. “But in the interests of keeping organic food in America as pure and as nutritious as possible, we have to ask: What about the other 95 percent?

Popoff, a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and author of a recent book called “Is It Organic,” also questioned the timing of the testing that will be conducted under the new USDA format.

“Of the 5 percent of farms and processors the USDA plans to test, officials say they will require that some of them are subjected to pre-harvest testing. But surely it would be advisable to do mostly pre-harvest testing. After all, the benefits of organic production all occur in the field. So what better way to ensure that organic crops and livestock are indeed purer and more nutritious than to do all testing in the field?”

With the exception of genetically-modified organisms, almost everything that’s prohibited in organic production dissipates and in many cases becomes undetectable over time, Popoff notes. “So there’s little point wasting time or money testing organic crops post-harvest. In order to prevent cheating, all testing in the organic industry must occur prior to harvest.

“Whether it’s herbicides, pesticides, hormones, improperly-composted manure, or the big-money-maker: synthetic ammonium nitrate, only an unannounced inspection and field test will deter fraud and gross negligence in the multibillion dollar organic sector.”

USDA said the certifying agencies will decide which organic farms and processors will be tested. Allowing flexibility in inspections will help reduce costs.

Critics also are concerned about inspections of organic food that's imported into the United States every year, under USDA oversight, from countries like China, Mexico and Brazil. Imports account for nearly half of the organic food sold in the U.S. annually.

In-season testing

“Consider that Olympic athletes are tested before and during the games, not after. And the good news in the case of organic farming is that doing such tests in the field – 100 percent of the time instead of just 5 percent of the time – will drastically reduce a farmer’s cost of being certified, because field testing costs about one-tenth what the current system of record-keeping and record-checking costs.

While USDA officials say the cost of this new plan will be about $500 per test, a broad-spectrum herbicide analysis costs just $125, Popoff notes. “And what about testing for fecal coliforms? That costs just $16 per test, money well spent when one considers the risks inherent in improperly-composted manure.”

Popoff says Heartland does not suggest testing for everything every year. “As long as the party being inspected doesn't know what’s being tested for, a broad-spectrum herbicide analysis or a fecal coliform test, or any of a host of other inexpensive tests, would suffice to prove or disprove a farmer’s or processor’s adherence to the NOP and hopefully keep everyone honest.”

Another issue concerns the ‘royalties’ being collected by USDA-accredited certifiers. Private, for-profit companies collect 1 percent to 3 percent of a farmer’s gross revenue from each transaction they certify? Critics believe organic field testing must be carried out by independent inspectors.


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