Posted on October 10, 2019 by Sustainable Food News

USDA rejects organic produce supplier’s ‘drift’ claim over contamination

Chilean organic avocado, lemon producer faces 3-year suspension

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) reported Wednesday that an appeal by organic avocado and lemon producer, Agricola y Comercializadora dos Hermanos Spa of Santiago, Chile, over the company’s proposed three-year suspension has been denied.

The verdict was handed down in an Oct. 7 decision by Bruce Summers, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the NOP.

According to the NOP’s Organic Integrity Database, Agricola maintains two organic certificates for crops (avocados and lemons) and handling. The organic certificates were granted in May 2017 by Germany’s Certification of Environmental Standards GmbH (CERES).

Summers said that “evidence shows that prohibited substances were applied to the lemon and avocado crops” maintained by Agricola. Summers ruled that Agricola is to be suspended for three years from Feb. 27, and is also prohibited from labeling or selling its crops as organic during the suspension period. Agricola’s certification for handling is unaffected.

Agricola has until about Nov. 7 to request a hearing before an USDA Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and its organic certificate for crops remains valid until then. If the company waives the hearing, the suspension goes into effect. Agricola will then be able to apply for reinstatement on Feb. 27, 2022.

The problem was discovered after CERES conducted two unannounced inspections of Agricola’s operation. During the inspection, CERES collected lemon leaves and avocado leaves and fruit, as well as water from a crop sprayer, all of which showed the presence of “numerous synthetic prohibited substances,” specifically fungicides.

Agricola’s organic management plan indicated problems with fungi in Agricola’s operation, specifically the lemon crop. “However, while Agricola’s desire to control or eradicate the fungi from its crops is understandable, the use of such fungicides/pesticides is prohibited under the organic regulations,” Summers’ denial document read.

CERES issued a notice of noncompliance and proposed suspension in March citing Agricola’s use of prohibited substances. Agricola submitted an appeal in April.

In its appeal, Agricola denied the use of prohibited substances on its lemon and avocado crops, but agreed that the avocado crop should be removed from certification.

Agricola stated that its own samples of lemon leaves submitted for analysis showed that samples collected from the border of its property showed higher levels of the specific prohibited substances than samples collected from the interior of the lemon crop.

Agricola contended that this proved that the contamination is due to drift and not its direct application of the Carbendazim, Carbendazim/Benomyl, and Paclobutrazol found in CERES’ lab results.

Agricola stated that its sampling and testing of the sprayer water didn’t detect any residue, which differed from CERES’ testing, which found multiple prohibited substances.

CERES contended that the concentration of the prohibited substances pointed to direct application by Agricola.

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