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November 20, 2012
Requirements clarified for organic agents

In a final rule, the U.S. Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has clarified periodic residue testing requirements accredited certifying agents must meet under the National Organic Program (NOP).  The rule specifies that certifying agents must, on an annual basis, sample and conduct residue testing from a minimum of 5 percent of the operations they certify. 

The NOP requires that certifying agents conduct periodic residue testing of organic agricultural products (i.e., products to be sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s)).”  However, according to the AMS, certifying agents have misconstrued when the NOP requires that residue testing be conducted.

OIG report

The AMS initiated the rulemaking after a March 2010 audit by the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that none of four certifying agents visited conducted periodic residue testing.  The agents told the OIG that they considered residue testing to be required by the regulations only under certain conditions.  Before issuing a proposal to clarify the requirements, the AMS conducted two webinar training sessions for certifying agents and solicited feedback from the agents.

Rule elements

The final rule includes the following requirements:

  • Organic products must be made accessible by certified organic production or handling operations for examination by authorized inspectors (i.e., the AMS, the governing official of the applicable state organic program, or the certifying agent).
  • Authorized inspectors may require preharvest or postharvest testing of any agricultural input used or agricultural product to be sold, labeled, or represented as an organic product when there is reason to believe that the agricultural input or product has come into contact with a prohibited substance or has been produced using excluded methods.
  • A certifying agent must conduct periodic residue testing of organic products. Samples may include the collection and testing of soil; water; waste; seeds; plant tissue; and plant, animal, and processed product samples. Such tests must be conducted by the certifying agent at the certifying agent’s own expense.
  • A certifying agent must, on an annual basis, sample and test from a minimum of 5 percent of the operations it certifies, rounded to the nearest whole number.  A certifying agent that certifies fewer than 30 operations on an annual basis must sample and test from at least one operation annually.
  • Sample integrity must be maintained throughout the chain of custody, and residue testing must be performed in an accredited laboratory.
  • Results of all analyses and tests will be available for public access unless the testing is part of an ongoing compliance investigation.
  • If test results indicate a specific agricultural product contains pesticide residues or environmental contaminants that exceed the Food and Drug Administration’s or EPA’s regulatory tolerances, the certifying agent must promptly report such data to the federal health agency whose regulatory tolerance or action level has been exceeded.

According to the AMS, the additional testing will help certifying agents identify and take enforcement action against farms and businesses intentionally using prohibited substances or methods. 

AMS’s final rule on periodic residue testing under the NOP was published in the November 9, 2012, FR.

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