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Organic 101: Strengthening Organic Integrity through Increased Residue Testing

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Deputy Administrator in Food and Nutrition Trade
Feb 21, 2017
From produce, like these vine-ripened tomatoes, to processed foods like cheese and milk, additional testing requirements will help certifying agents identify cases where prohibited methods and substances are being used. Photo courtesy Jess Sanson.
From produce, like these vine-ripened tomatoes, to processed foods like cheese and milk, additional testing requirements will help certifying agents identify cases where prohibited methods and substances are being used. Photo courtesy Jess Sanson.

This is the tenth installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

In late 2012, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) announced a strengthened residue testing program to help increase consumer confidence in the $32 billion organic industry worldwide. Consumers purchase organic products expecting that they maintain their organic integrity from farm to market, and USDA is committed to meeting these expectations. This program will provide additional verification that organic farmers are following the rules and not using prohibited substances.

Beginning January 1, 2013, USDA organic certifying agents will test products from at least five percent of the organic farms and businesses that they certify each year. While testing has always been a part of organic product oversight, the new program specifies a minimum amount of testing that must occur.

This testing will help certifying agents identify and take enforcement action against farms and businesses intentionally using prohibited substances or methods, such as prohibited pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones or genetic engineering. Certifying agents can use test results to identify and address instances in which organic products may have unintentionally come in contact with prohibited substances.

The NOP has provided certifying agents with resources to help them comply with the new residue testing program. Certifiers currently conduct residue testing when they are concerned that a farm or business has used a prohibited substance or method. Certifying agents will continue to determine which organic farms and businesses should be subjected to testing. Some testing will likely be random, while other testing will be risk-based. Since there will be wide variety in how organic operations are selected and which tests are conducted, test results will not be used to make broad conclusions about a specific commodity or category of products.

The strengthened testing program also increases confidence in the integrity of USDA organic products among international trade partners. The U.S. currently has trade partnerships with the European Union and Canada, streamlining trade between three of the largest organic markets in the world. USDA is currently in discussions to consider similar arrangements with other foreign governments, creating new markets and jobs for organic farmers and businesses.

The new periodic residue testing program will discourage mislabeling and facilitate our oversight of USDA organic products around the world. Periodic residue testing is an important tool to protect the integrity of USDA organic products around the world.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition Trade

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Dean Pinner
Feb 22, 2013

This residue testing sounds good on the surface if it was totally transparent. For residue testing to work correctly there can be no room for error. The test conducted, the lab used, and the professional interpretation of the results must all be beyond reproach.
I fear there is so much money involved that eventually it will degrade into who is suing who and who has the best lawyers. Certifying agents are not financially fit enough to survive long term law suits over testing errors, data collected during "quiet inspections", and errors committed during lab analysis.
How will it be any different than the travesties that ocurr on a daily basis in any other court in this land?

Kathryn Waple
Feb 23, 2013

Will the produce be tested for residues that may have been absorbed into the plant during the growing process?

Feb 25, 2013

@ Dean – Thanks for your questions about this process. Rigorous and legally defensible testing and analysis processes are vital to supporting the integrity of the residue testing program, and our guidance does define criteria for laboratory selection with that in mind. Residue testing is part of a comprehensive certification and oversight process, with includes annual inspections, organic system plan reviews, and testing under the residue testing program – all of the elements work together to support organic integrity and consumer confidence. If you are interested in learning about future National Organic Program updates, you can join our mailing list at

Diane Cobb
Feb 25, 2013

This is a great initiative. I have an issue with the previous decision the USDA has made towards the cross contamination of our organic crops and GMO crops. How will this initiative prove useful to bring the consumer USDA certified organic when the world has scientifically proven cross contamination of the crops are highly in other countries? I eat only certified organic products, or buy local farmers and ranchers who I know their practices. The pesticide and herbicide use on GE crops are far to damaging to the health of humans, environment, wild life, and water supply. What will be the decision towards decreasing the chemicals in surrounding crops that are not organic, to preserve the integrity of organic?

Janet O'Dell
Mar 01, 2013

Those look yummie, I LOVE the smell of fresh tomatoes! Nothing better.

C W Bryan
Mar 01, 2013

I believe that the sequester is going to take a big bite out of the new requirements for growing anything and particularly organic growing. It is what Congressmen have had their eyes on for a long time. They say they want less government. They will do anything to hinder any progress that provides more expansion in any manner.

May 04, 2013

I have a question, and hope it falls correctly under the "residue testing" category. I read the following statement in an article about the impending approval of genetically engineered apples (article link included at the end of my comment): "inadvertent pollination of an organic tree by GE pollen would not make fruit of the organic tree ineligible for organic certification in the U.S. or the EU or interfere with export to the EU." Is this true? I've attempted to locate the answer myself on the USDA Organics website but have not (yet) been able to turn anything up. Your input would be most appreciated! Here is the article source; the statement is two paragraphs above the photo of the two apples:

Mar 17, 2014

Hi, I heard that if milk is certified organic that it doesn't necessarily mean that there were not antibiotics and hormones used but only that the animal was fed organic feed. Is this true?