A survey by a previously unknown organization, the Organics Council, is being used to warn that current organic regulations are failing to protect organic food from becoming contaminated by harmful substances.
But the UK’s lead organic body the Soil Association (SA) has accused the group of a ‘huge exaggeration’ of the risks, and says it has got ‘some basic facts wrong’.
Setting out to expose what it sees as shortcomings of existing statutory organic controls, the Organics Council is also actively promoting its own organic ‘regulations’ on its newly launched website.
The group began issuing press releases based on findings from its ‘2018 Annual Organic Product Pesticide Survey Basket’ on 13 June. The survey involved the testing of a range of organic products across several food categories including eggs, flour, vegetable oil and fresh fruit and vegetables – all sourced from UK supermarkets.
The first release focused on a pesticide test on organic eggs bought in three leading British retailers – Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer – in April 2018. One sample of eggs from Ocado was found by to contain traces of cyromazine (an insect growth regulator prohibited in organic farming) at levels that exceed EU maximum permitted levels for food safety.
This calls into question the efficacy and robustness of statutory organic farming regulatory framework
Commenting on the findings, Dr Esme Purdie from the Organics Council says: “The use of synthetic and potentially harmful substances in poultry and livestock farming is of concern in general. However, when organic produce fails to meet even conventional farming safety guidelines, due to contamination with pesticide residues, it is even more alarming. This calls into question the efficacy and robustness of statutory organic farming regulatory framework.”
A second press release issued on 27 June focused on tests carried out on a small number of organic grain and cereal products. Three individual cereal products were screened for a range of substances, including pesticides and processing aids.
The Organics Council says that its tests revealed ‘trace levels’ of the pesticide glyphosate in two out of the three products: Duchy Organic Farmhouse Batch wholemeal bread 0.8kg from Waitrose and Tesco Organic Plain Flour 1kg from Tesco, both at ‘below the quantification threshold of 0.01mg/kg but at concentrations higher than 0.002mg/kg3”’.
In its press release the Organics Council said that its test was evidence of ‘widespread contamination of organic grain and cereal products’. The organization has indicated that it will be issuing further releases in the coming weeks.
Commenting on the survey, the SA says: “The Soil Association is not able to comment on whether this is a genuine survey because of the significant lack of detail. The release indicates that only three samples were taken. Key information needed to make sense of any testing for contamination includes: sampling protocols, sample integrity, whether the test is accredited appropriately, and scientific interpretation of the results.
“Regarding the results claimed for organic flour, the lab cannot quantify glyphosate at less than .01 mg/kg and is therefore inconclusive on what the level is. Organics Council claims it is more than .002 mg/kg but this level is so low (two parts per 100 million) that it is at the limit of detection. Extrapolating these results to be indicative of ‘widespread contamination with carcinogenic pesticide of organic grain and cereal products sold in UK supermarkets’ is an exaggeration at best, misleading at worst.
This is exactly the reason we need to move to other ways of farming that are less reliant on pesticides
“Organic foods occasionally contain traces of pesticides at very low levels, usually as a result of environmental contamination. This is exactly the reason we need to move to other ways of farming that are less reliant on pesticides.”
The SA adds that none of its personnel had previously ever heard of the Organics Council or the Annual Organic Product Pesticide Survey Basket.
In a letter to The Grocer magazine, Martin Sawyer, chief executive of Soil Association Certification said that Organics Council’s claim of ‘widespread contamination of organic grain and cereal products’, based on three samples, was a ‘huge exaggeration’. Sawyer said that the group had also got some basic facts wrong, noting: “The maximum residue limit (MRL) for glyphosate in wheat flour is 10mg/kg – not 0.01mg/kg, and EU member states did not vote in December 2017 to ban the use of glyphosate in conventional farming, domestic products and phase out the use of glyphosate agriculturally over the next five years. The Licence was in fact granted for five years (no phase-out).”
On its website, the Organics Council says that it began as a ‘collective of concerned scientists and professionals, disturbed by the number of toxins that we are exposed to daily’. It describes itself as the ‘non-profit branch of a community benefit company aimed at actioning a circular economy via totally organic principles on product content and packaging’. The organization operates its own certification scheme, named OrganiTrust, and a web-based social project called whatishealthy.info with the stated aim of informing the public ‘on daily toxins exposure’.
A spokesperson for the Organics Council spoke with NPN about the organization.
“We are a new organization. The first time we went public was with the press releases. Before that we were working behind the scenes, developing our regulations for organic non-food area.”
He said that Organics Council’s own regulations (initially for non-food products and services) were created to fill ‘holes and gaps’ in statutory regulation of organic products. “Our regulations are aimed at the companies that believe in a true circular economy and who have products that are not covered by statutory laws. We know that there some ad-hoc schemes for categories like cosmetics and textiles, but we think they are too vague and too lax.”
He denied that the style of the recent press releases was alarmist, specifically claims of ‘widespread contamination’ of organic. “The tests we ran were carried out by ISO 17025 accredited labs. We were quite brazen in our PR because we knew that the samples were personally sourced by our own team and tested by accredited labs to full accredited methods. We believe the test results justify the use of ‘potentially’, which is the word we used in the title of the press release.”