USDA urged to tighten oversight of organic milk operations

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 1 - USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service should require testing feed on organic dairy farms to assure consumers that it's free of material from biotech crops, USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) says in an audit report. The auditors don't say there is any evidence of biotech contamination of dairy rations but assert that “unless certifying agents utilize GM detection to identify potential violations, there cannot be reasonable assurance that certifiers are identifying and ensuring that GM material is not contaminating organic feed and forage.”

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AMS agreed reluctantly with OIG's recommendation, saying that it would analyze the reliability and usefulness of tests that might determine whether a biotech trait showed up in dairy feed, either intentionally or unavoidably - “an essential distinction for enforcement purposes.” It plans to complete the analysis by February 2013.

AMS National Organic Program officials “expressed concerns about the feasibility of such testing,” OIG said, because rapid tests for a biotech trait only can detect its presence but not its level. AMS relies on its certification process - identity preservation, audit trails and inspection - to verify that feed and forage is organic. OIG says AMS organic officials “believe that it is better to allow the certifying agents to decide what they should test for, based on local agricultural conditions, proximity to conventional farming operations and the product being inspected.”

OIG acknowledged the obstacles to regular testing but added that “consumers expect that organic milk will not come from cattle fed a diet containing GM material.” The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration Federal has such tests, OIG pointed out.

The biotech test recommendation was one of eight mostly picayune, procedural steps that USDA should take “to better ensure that consumers who choose to pay a premium for organic milk are receiving the high-quality product they wish to purchase.” Acting AMS Administrator Robert Keeney agreed to implement all of the suggestions.

OIG also recommended that certifying agents include milk hauling in their organic system plans. Because bulk milk tankers are not certified organic, OIG sees “a risk that organic milk can come into contact with prohibited substances as it is being transported from the producer to the processing facility.” It also proposed that certifying agents be told to conduct unannounced inspections of organic operations. Such inspections “provide a useful control for ensuring that dairy operations are complying with the rules of organic production,” the auditors said.


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