The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced a new requirement for certifying agencies under the National Organic Program (NOP). Agencies must now annually test for non-organic residue in samples from at least 5% of the organic farms and processors they certify. The requirement went into effect on January 1, 2013.

This final rule from USDA comes after a public comment period on the proposed rule, and it creates a baseline level of oversight in organic where before there was none. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 laid down authority for USDA to require periodic residue testing in organic production, but an audit by the USDA Office of Inspector General in 2010 that visited four certifying agents revealed that none conducted this testing.

 The goal of this rule is to provide a concrete requirement for minimum testing levels. After considering requiring agencies to test all of their certified organic operations annually, and a 25% option, USDA settled on 5%. “This level was chosen to ensure that all certifying agents, regardless of the number of operations they certify, are responsible for some level of regular residue testing at reasonable cost,” USDA wrote in its Federal Register notice announcing the rule.

The nature of the samples that will be tested is left up to the certifying agencies. Pre-harvest, post-harvest or finished product testing may be carried out to determine if pesticide residue, arsenic or other compounds, genetic engineering, synthetic hormones, antibiotics and other substances banned in organic production are present. All sample testing performed by certifying agencies, including any performed on suspicion of specific food being contaminated with non-organic substances, will count toward the 5% requirement.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2013 (online 11/29/12)