Updated organic guides proposed
Agents would respond differently based on amount of chemicals detected
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
New organic guidelines from USDA aim to narrow down how certifying agents respond to pesticide residues on crops, the use of non-organic seeds and other issues.
The proposed guidelines are intended to promote consistency in how certifying agents deal with situations they encounter on organic farms, according to the agency's National Organic Program.
Once finalized, the guidelines will be included in a USDA handbook that details how the agency enforces organic certification regulations.
For pesticide residues on organic crops, for example, the USDA would expect different responses from certifying agents based on the amount of chemical detected -- and whether the application was intentional or not.
If the pesticide residue exceeds the level allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for that crop, agents should immediately report the results to state food safety regulators and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as federal organic regulators.
If the residues are below that allowable level, or tolerance, the agent must only report the results to the National Organic Program, but the crop generally cannot be sold as organic.
Only crops with pesticide residues 95 percent below the allowable tolerance may still be sold as organic, and only if the application was unintentional.
Under every scenario, the agent must investigate why the residues occurred -- willful violators could have their organic certification suspended or revoked, the guidelines said.
The Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy group that monitors compliance with organic standards, said the proposed guidelines are a step in the right direction.
"We like what we're seeing in the draft guidance, but there are other questions we would still like to see addressed," said Charlotte Vallaeys, director of food and farm policy at the institute.
The guidelines would work well in conjunction with another recent USDA proposal that would require certifying agents to randomly test at least 5 percent of the farms under their supervision for pesticide residues, she said.
However, the group would still like to see the USDA focus on organic crops that are considered a higher risk for exposure to pesticides, like imports and fruits and vegetables, she said.
Though the institute generally calls for strict enforcement, Vallaeys said it's reasonable for crops with residues 95 percent below the pesticide tolerance to be sold as organic.
Farmers who unintentionally are affected by pesticides should not be penalized, she said. "The problem is organic farmers are in an environment where conventional agriculture is the norm, so pesticide drift can't always be avoided."
The USDA's proposed guidelines for seed and planting stock also allow for some flexibility.
Farmers are generally expected to use organic seeds and planting stock, but the regulations provide an exemption if the type they need isn't commercially available.
However, up until now there hasn't been a clear method of determining commercial availability.
The newly proposed guidelines list acceptable justifications for not using organic seed, like germination levels and temperature tolerance.
The guidelines also require farmers to show they actually looked for the right seed.
For example, growers would need to provide certifying agents with records they contacted at least three sources of seed or planting stock as part of their search.
The Organic Seed Alliance, which promotes the use of such seed, appreciates the guidelines but believes they should include additional measures.
For example, certifying agents should ask farmers to conduct field trials of different organic seeds as part of their search, said Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the group.
A national database of commercially available organic seeds would also be tremendously helpful, she said.
"The lack of reliable data is one of the barriers to the development of the organic seed industry," Hubbard said. "We believe they could go further in encouraging the collection of information that is really lacking."