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Media Investigation Finds Contaminated Organic Cotton Clothing

Major fashion retailer H&M is under fire after media reports said that it has been selling organic cotton clothing tainted with genetically modified (GM) cotton imported from India. Consumer groups and environmental organizations are calling for an investigation into the matter, but the retailer insists there is no reason to believe that organic cotton used in its garments comes from GM seeds.

H&M, a major European clothing store chain with scores of stores in the U.S., were named in a report last week in the German edition of the Financial Times, which claims there was major 'fraud' taking place in the organic cotton sector. The Financial Times said that an independent testing laboratory found that organic cotton samples certified as "organic" were contaminated with genetically modified (GM) cotton material. According to the lab results, "30% of the tested samples" of organic cotton fabric contained GM cotton. Growing cotton from GM seeds is prohibited according to organic standards and the third-party certification bodies.

This fallout comes at a time when scrutiny of the use of "organic" labels on various consumer goods has elevated. Last week, Organic Consumers Association (OCA), along with certified organic personal care brands, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP), seeking action to stop some personal care manufacturers from, according to the petitioners, mislabeling their products as "organic." The petition calls for an investigation into what it believes is widespread and blatantly deceptive labeling practices of leading "organic" consumer brands.

Almost half of the world's organic cotton comes from India, with an output of nearly 107,000 tons of fiber in 2009 alone. According to Sanjay Dave, head of the Indian agricultural authority, the level of fraud in India is on "a gigantic scale." In April 2009, Indian authorities discovered the alleged fraud and third-party certification agencies were fined. It is still unclear whether the certifiers had knowingly and falsely labeled the cotton as "organic." A spokeswoman for H&M stated the company became aware of the incident last year, admitting that "GM cotton could have made it into H&M's organic range."

Although H&M is not entirely at fault, as the chain has not actually commissioned this cotton, Monika Buening of the German Federal Consumer Affairs Agency, has said H&M should have monitored their supply carefully. Ms. Buening demanded the clothing chain must now "disclose their supply chain" and "inspect their certifiers better, at least by conducting random checks."

Environmental organization Greenpeace called for a legal investigation into the matter. The organization's agricultural expert, Martin Hofstetter, said that some products which had not been organically produced were being sold as such. "This is a major malpractice. It's consumer fraud, which must be punished," Mr. Hofstetter said. He pointed out that many small fields in India were often clustered together in close proximity to each other, cultivating a variety of different crops - organic, conventional and GM. GM pollen drift results in crop contamination from one field to the other.

Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. However, organic labels must be backed by third-party certification to USDA organic standards. Firmer rules need to be in place and enforced along the organic cotton production chain, including third party certification. Clothing and personal care product brands need to invest more in improved supply chain transparency and more thorough testing. For more information on organic agriculture and practices, see Beyond Pesticides' Organic Program page.

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