How did a banned herbicide end up in organic grain?

When glyphosate was found in organic barley, no one told consumers. Why it’s time to beef up organic rules.

Field of barley.

Nestled in the Maniototo in central Otago, Lammermoor Station grows fields of golden barley. Much of the grain used to be certified as organic by BioGro. But in 2017 BioGro withdrew its tick after its testing found the barley contained a prohibited substance.

That substance was glyphosate, a herbicide commonly known as Roundup that’s banned from use in organic production.

By the time it was discovered, tonnes of the grain had been sold as stock feed to other organic farmers. Their produce was destined for shop shelves where it would command a premium price. Whether the grain they bought was contaminated too can’t be known for sure – it had already been consumed before testing could be done.

Blowing the whistle

Without a tip-off, the glyphosate contamination may never have been found.

BioGro chief executive Donald Nordeng said its investigation was sparked by a complaint from a Lammermoor customer who’d bought the organic barley and discovered it contained the herbicide.

The customer, who wanted to remain anonymous, was billed $600 a tonne for the grain, double the price of conventional barley. Test results provided to Consumer showed the barley had glyphosate above the maximum residue levels allowed for the chemical in food.

Lammermoor’s barley was also sold to Bostock Brothers, the only retail brand of organic chicken meat.

Director Ben Bostock said it bought BioGro-certified barley from Lammermoor in 2017 to feed to its chickens. When it learnt of the investigation, the grain had already been fed to its chooks and there was “no way of testing” whether it too was contaminated, he said.

Mr Bostock said it no longer buys grain and grows its own stock feed.

Mainland Poultry also bought Lammermoor’s barley as feed for its organic chicken flocks. Marketing manager Julie Williams said it stopped purchasing the grain when the company notified it of the problem.

Against the grain

The question that still hasn’t been answered is how glyphosate ended up in a product that was certified and sold as “organic”.

Owner John Elliot told us the contamination “may have been spray drift from neighbouring properties or cross-contamination with other farmers using our auger or during transport. We have taken very strict measures on … cross-contamination issues since”. He later said it was spray drift from a helicopter spraying a conventional block.

The big hitch for consumers is there’s no mandatory standard companies must meet to label their products “organic” and no one’s regularly checking the goods are genuine.

When BioGro’s investigation began, Lammermoor contacted customers and stopped selling the grain as organic, he said.

Mr Elliot contested BioGro’s decision to withdraw its tick, though said he’d already decided to get certification from AsureQuality, the other main player in the certification market. AsureQuality accredited the company the same year that BioGro dropped it from its books.

BioGro’s Donald Nordeng was surprised Lammermoor was taken on by another certifier so quickly: “It does seem unusual, to say the least, not to have a stand-down period.”

Why didn’t that happen?

Sam Brooks, AsureQuality business manager, said it doesn’t have a “set ‘stand-down period’ per se”. In cases like this, it reviews information about why certification’s been withdrawn before deciding if it will take on the customer, he said.

“If it is deemed that there is a path forward, then a rigorous AsureQuality certification plan is developed to which the customer must agree to comply.”

For Lammermoor, this plan included increased auditing, and residue testing of products and soil. The company was also required to switch its non-organic production to organic: at the time the glyphosate contamination was found, it grew both organic and conventional barley.

Mr Elliot said glyphosate was previously used on the property to spray weeds on land not planted in barley but this isn’t done anymore.

“To date, AsureQuality are comfortable that Lammermoor Partnership are complying with all requirements of their organic certification,” Mr Brooks said.

Mainland Poultry’s Julie Williams said it had started purchasing from Lammermoor again.

Ticked off

Whatever the answer to the question of how the barley was contaminated, the case is likely to irk consumers who pay a premium for organic produce.

Sixty-six percent of consumers buy organic products at least some of the time with 15% buying them frequently. Organics Aotearoa, which represents producers, reports supermarket sales of organic goods were worth $216 million in 2018, up 8.1% on the previous year.

The big hitch for consumers is there’s no mandatory standard companies must meet to label their products “organic” and no one’s regularly checking the goods are genuine.

Companies can opt to have their products certified by a scheme such as AsureQuality or BioGro. They’ll be audited to check they’re complying with the scheme’s requirements but audit results aren’t published. When a producer doesn’t meet the rules, consumers may never find out.

For its part, BioGro said it gets few complaints. Donald Nordeng described the Lammermoor case as “an outlier”.

Who’s keeping tabs?

Current rules mean there’s little monitoring of the domestic organic market by government agencies.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) vets organic exporters under its Official Organic Assurance Programme, intended to give overseas markets confidence products meet their label claims. But organic produce sold locally doesn’t get the same scrutiny.

Sources Consumer spoke to said the ministry was aware of BioGro’s decision to withdraw Lammermoor’s certification. However, MPI wouldn’t provide details to us about what it knew stating the information was “commercially confidential”.

The ministry may soon be forced to beef up its role. Agriculture and Food Safety Minister Damien O’Connor announced a national standard for organic production would be introduced to give “consumers confidence in organic claims and businesses certainty to invest and innovate in the growing sector”.

While details of the law change have yet to be released, consultation on the proposals last year showed majority support for a mandatory standard.

However, to ensure consumers can have confidence in organic claims, this standard will need to provide for better disclosure of audit reports and complaints than exists under voluntary certification schemes.

BioGro would back more public disclosure, Mr Nordeng said. In the Lammermoor case, BioGro did its due diligence and informed all parties of the reason for the forced withdrawal of certification, he said. “If there was an area where BioGro could have done a better job, it would be by posting a suspended licensee list on its website … We are looking at options for doing this.”

Found a misleading claim?

If you think a company’s making a misleading organic claim, make a complaint to the Commerce Commission. You can also let us know.

Certification schemes in NZ

There are four organic certification schemes in New Zealand:

Logos for organic certification schemes in New Zealand: AsureQuality Organic, BioGro, Demeter and OrganicFarmNZ.
  • AsureQuality Organic is run by AsureQuality, a commercial company owned by the government (asurequality.com).

  • BioGro is owned by the Soil and Health Association, an incorporated society (biogro.co.nz).

  • Demeter is an international certification scheme for biodynamic farming, a type of organic production. The Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association runs the scheme here (biodynamic.org.nz).

  • OrganicFarmNZ certification is targeted at small-scale producers who sell domestically (organicfarm.org.nz).

To be certified, producers must meet the schemes’ animal welfare and environmental standards, including avoiding the use of antibiotics, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Schemes typically require at least 95% of a product to be organic.

Glyphosate concerns

Glyphosate hit world headlines in 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The IARC didn’t estimate the level of risk from exposure to the chemical. That was the subject of a subsequent review by a joint Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization panel that concluded, based on the weight of evidence, the chemical was “unlikely to cause cancer in people from dietary exposure”. Regulators in the EU and US came to the same conclusion.

The decisions haven’t been without controversy. A major point of contention has been the use of unpublished industry studies, which the IARC rules out in its reviews but regulators don’t.

Last year, head of the European Food Safety Authority Bernhard Url sought to dismiss attacks as politically motivated. Yes, he said, assessments relied on industry safety studies but it was the regulator’s job to evaluate the science. If politicians wanted to change the rules, funding for these studies would need to come from somewhere else, he said. That suggestion has yet to be taken up.

Environmental impact

The chemical’s environmental impacts have also come under closer scrutiny.

University of Canterbury professor of toxicology Ian Shaw said, for much of its history, glyphosate had been considered relatively safe but its widespread use was giving rise to environmental effects that were never considered when the chemical was developed. Its most perplexing behaviour was as an environmental estrogen mimic, Professor Shaw said.

Research is also raising questions about the chemical’s effects on bacteria. A study published in the journal Microbiology in 2017 found glyphosate could cause e coli and salmonella enterica bacteria to respond differently to antibiotics, often becoming less sensitive to them. Co-author Jack Heinemann, University of Canterbury professor of genetics, said the findings added “to a growing body of evidence that herbicides used on a mass industrial scale, but not intended to be antibiotics, can have profound effects on bacteria”.

What now?

Glyphosate is one of the most common herbicides in New Zealand, used on crops such as barley and wheat, and in forestry to control weeds. However, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) doesn’t routinely collect information on glyphosate use. Clark Ehlers, acting general manager for hazardous substances and new organisms, said it would continue to review scientific evidence as it’s released.

Meanwhile, the glyphosate debate is being played out in courts in the US. In July, a California judge awarded US$87 million to a couple who claimed Roundup had caused their cancer. The decision is being appealed by manufacturer Bayer.

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