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Prohibited product contamination of organic cereals
Pesticide contamination of organic cereals and other arable crops can be devastating. Crops can lose their organic status and may be difficult to sell. This session will examine proposed reforms and protocols and their potential impact on producers and the supply chain. (Organised by Organic Arable)
Bruce Pearce (ORC): Chair
The session focused on the Defra initiated consultation on testing procedures for substances prohibited in organic farming, i.e. mainly referring to pesticide residues.
James Winpenny from Defra introduced the scope of the consultation and highlighted that it comprised questions about when testing can or must take place; how sampling procedures should be designed; and what actions should to be taken where an irregularity or infringement has been found.
One question within the consultation referred to the trigger level at which actions would be taken; the options for this could be -
- specific for different products and substances;
- or generic;
- or it could be a proportion of the maximal residue level;
- or there could be no trigger level.
The 12 week consultation showed diverse views about which option should be adopted. The government response is required by 31st of March. Although the consultation is officially closed, comments were still welcome.
Richard Jacobs from OF&G spoke about the need to protect genuine organic producers and the consumers. There was a duty to investigate cases if contamination is found. He stressed that most contamination cases were in imported products. In the UK, some organic oats samples were found to contain residues.
Defra’s proposal is that if there is ‘no suspicion’, the control body must not carry out testing on any product that has been previously certified, i.e. no random testing would allowed; however, this would endanger trust of consumers. Although ‘suspicion’ is defined in the proposal and contains a wide range of scenarios, OF&G sometimes have concerns which would not be covered by the new guidelines.
Lawrence Woodward said the current proposal by Defra showed a misunderstanding of the EU regulation, which was deliberately not developed as a guarantee of pesticide residue free food.
So far, pesticide residues have not been a problem, but problems have more recently arisen due to the globalisation of the organic market. Although there is now an increasing number of positive samples in UK cereal products, esp. oats, this originates not on farm, but is a problem of food processing.
There is the need to separate accidental contamination from deliberate use of prohibited materials. Pesticide tests should not form the basis of gaining a suspicion. Also it is not possible to use such suspicions to put products on hold.
It was highlighted that current sampling techniques are inaccurate and must be revised. It was concluded that residue testing should focus on final product, not on the farm – which is what the consumer is concerned about.
In the discussion it was asked why Defra was proposing to prevent companies from testing? For this no satisfactory answer was found.
An underlying problem was seen in the assumed but non-existent equivalence of certification among European member states. It was questioned whether the restriction on testing as proposed by Defra is legal, and whether it correctly interprets the European regulation. Is the practice of putting products on hold when pesticides have been found backed by the EU regulation?
The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:
- There was a broad agreement within the audience that restrictions on testing as proposed by Defra would not serve the organic sector well.
- Further, there is a need to revise sampling techniques as current methods are inaccurate