Organic Consumers Association

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Organic Holiday Fare to Face Pesticide Test Purists Call Flawed

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A new rule designed to bolster the integrity of next year's organic holiday food by testing for pesticides and contaminants may be too weak to be effective.

Beginning in January, food inspectors in the U.S. will be required to test for at least one prohibited substance in one out of every 20 certified farms and processing facilities certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Decisions about the products and facilities to be tested will be made by outside inspectors, who are paid by farmers and processors for organic certifications. Because the USDA doesn't plan to track the results, consumers -- who pay a premium for food assumed to be free of additives -- will be less able to make informed judgments about food purity, according to Charles Benbrook, member of a USDA advisory committee on biotechnology and agriculture.

"It's an opportunity missed to do something meaningful on the question of pesticides in organic food and food in general," said Benbrook, a research professor at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. "It's the kind of behavior you might expect from an accountant who's trying to protect the client rather than solve a problem."

The flaws in the testing regime reveal the challenges faced by the USDA's National Organic Program, which serves as both a booster of organic food and a guarantor of standards in the sector. The program relies on third-party certifiers -- an amalgamation of private businesses, non-profits and local government agencies -- to make sure that farmers and food processors follow record-keeping and production requirements needed to meet organic standards. 
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