The Organic & Non-GMO Report was recently alerted to a disturbing GMO contamination incident involving a shipment of organic soybeans to an organic processor. The names of both the processor and supplier have been kept confidential. The processor wanted to share his experience to emphasize the GMO challenges facing the organic industry.
It’s an organic processor’s nightmare: a buyer calls to say that your organic product tested positive for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The processor can’t sell the product as organic and loses money. Such unfortunate contamination incidents are increasing in the organic industry.
What makes the following incident even more troubling is the fact that a shipment of organic soybeans contained a high level of GM soy—much more than would have been caused by commingling with a small amount of GM soybeans or by cross-pollination.
In mid-April, Chris, who owns a soy processing facility, received a call from a customer saying that his soy ingredient tested positive for GMOs. Chris was shocked. His processing facility is 100% organic. He thought, “How could there be a problem?”
He then tried to trace the source of the contamination. He took samples from a railcar of organic soybeans sent from his supplier and sent them to a lab for testing.
The lab results stunned him. The samples tested positive at 20%, an extraordinarily high level of GMOs. The contamination was so high that the lab said there must be almost a truckload of GM soybeans in the railcar, says Chris.
He first reaction was that the result must be a mistake. This was the first time he had received a positive GMO test. “I’ve had samples from China tested for GMOs, and they always tested clean,” he says.
Chris filed a complaint with his organic certifier who sent it to the supplier’s certifier. The supplier then took his own samples from a different lot of soybeans, and they tested negative.
Turned other railcars back
Based on the supplier’s negative tests, Chris believes they won’t be found at fault. “This has cost me my business and over $100,000, and the supplier is still selling his crop,” he says.
According to Chris, shortly after learning about the positive GMO tests on the railcar sample, the supplier turned back three more railcars of organic soybeans headed for Chris’s facility. He then asked the supplier to ship soybeans to him by truck, but the supplier refused, saying they didn’t want to do business with him again.
Before the contamination problem, Chris says he had a great relationship with the supplier. He had previously purchased organic soybeans from China, but was happy to use a domestic supplier. That’s all changed. Now Chris is planning to buy Chinese organic soybeans again.
Doesn’t feel right selling as organic
Chris contacted his state organic certifier who assured him that the organic certification of his product was still valid even with the presence of GM material. “My certifier said it was still an organic product, but my customer didn’t want to buy it, and I don’t feel right about selling it as organic,” he says.
Chris’s certifier is wrong, says Jim Riddle, former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board. The National Organic Program prohibits the use of GMOs, but allows “adventitious” presence of GM material at the farm level only. “For a processor to accept GMO-contaminated ingredients and use them in organic products would be a direct violation, since it would constitute the use of the products of an excluded method (GMO),” he says.
As a result, Riddle says products produced from the batch of GMO-contaminated soybeans should lose organic certification and be sold as conventional. But he also says Chris’s processing facility would likely retain its organic certification, unless his certifier determines that his operation does not have the ability to prevent commingling or contamination.
Chris ended up selling his product to the conventional food market at one-half the price of organic. “I never had to sell a product to the conventional market before. It was not a pleasant experience,” he says.
“No trust for anybody”
Chris has asked his certifier to file a complaint with the supplier’s certifier and with the NOP, who told him they will “act accordingly.” But, his certifier has yet to send the paperwork one month after the incident, which angers Chris. Even after the complaint is filed, the NOP is not likely to take any action.
Legal action is also not an option. “If I pay attorneys I won’t have enough to pay wages,” says Chris. “I’m in survival mode, trying to keep my employees.”
Chris describes his situation as a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” bind.
He calls the GMO threat to organics a “new frontier” that the industry must address. “We will need an organic police department. Everyone needs to be forewarned: there will have to be comprehensive GMO testing.”
Chris believes a GMO tolerance in soybean production is needed immediately. “Zero tolerance is not going to happen. A certain amount of GMO has gotten into all aspects of soybean production, including organic.”
The contamination incident has left Chris disillusioned. “I’ve been in the organic industry for a long time. It was an industry built around trust, but after this I have absolutely no trust for anybody.”
(Editor’s note: For legal reasons, Chris did not want to divulge the supplier’s name. As a result, we were not able to contact the supplier to obtain his side of the story.)
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report June 2007.