Contamination incident shows how GMOs can damage organic industry
The June issue’s lead story, “Questions of fraud raised by GMO-contaminated shipment of organic soybeans,” focused on a disturbing GMO contamination incident that has pitted an organic processor against an organic supplier. The incident has resulted in financial losses, accusations, and talk of legal action. The US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) is reviewing the case to decide whether or not to investigate. This article provides more details about the incident.
Parm Randhawa was surprised by the results of a GMO test on samples of organic soybeans taken from a railcar. “The samples tested positive as much as 20% on one sample. That was quite high,” says Randhawa, who operates California Seed and Plant Lab, a GMO testing lab based in Elverta, California.
Randhawa tested the organic soybeans after getting a positive GMO test result on organic soybean oil made from the beans. This was also surprising because genetically modified DNA breaks down during the heat of oil processing and is usually difficult to detect.
When asked about the high GMO level found in the organic soybeans, Randhawa says, “It is either from unintentional mixing of the railcar (with GM soybeans), or someone is trying to make money quick (by mixing GM soybeans with organic).”
Dispute over source of contamination
California Seed and Plant Lab conducted the test for Nevada Soy Products, a processor of organic soybean oil and meal, with offices in Citrus Heights, California.
Company owner Mary Jo Rablin says she lost $100,000 due to the GMO problem and her business has been shut down for a month. She says the GMO contamination came from a railcar of organic soybeans she had received from a supplier in the Midwestern US.
The broker who sold the soybeans to Nevada Soy disputes that fact. “There was no problem on our end. We had the paper trail,” says Linda Holthaus of Iowa-based Jericho Solutions, which buys and sells organic grains. “If we had a problem, I would have made it right on our end. Someone’s trying to nail us for something we didn’t do.”
Holthaus says she has records confirming that the soybean seed planted was non-GMO. She believes the problem occurred at Nevada Soy’s plant with other soybean shipments being blended together to make oil. She also claims Nevada Soy was using imported Chinese soybeans that could have contained GMOs.
Rablin says her paperwork clearly shows that soybeans from the railcar tested positive for GMOs. “All Chinese (organic) soybeans were gone long before we had a problem with the GMO issue.” She also says there was never a GMO problem with Chinese soybeans.
Officially, China does not produce genetically modified soybeans. In fact, the country has designated Heilongjiang, a state in the northeast region, for GMO-free soybean production. Still, there have been questions about the integrity of Chinese organic products and certification.
Rablin wonders if the GMO contamination occurred at the grain elevator where the soybeans were loaded into a railcar.
Bills of lading for the disputed railcar shipment were signed by Randy Constant, who operates Organic Land Management, an organic farm marketing and production business based in Chillicothe, Missouri. Calls to Constant about the incident were not returned.
“Enough people out there selling conventional as organic”
Nevada Soy was also scheduled to receive three more railcars of organic soybeans from the Midwest, but these were turned around after the positive test. “I turned them around and made sure they were fine (non-GMO),” says Holthaus. “I shipped them somewhere else, and there were no problems.”
Rablin says the three railcars were turned around after she told a broker on the West Coast that these would also be tested for GMOs. “If they were so sure it was our contamination and not theirs why did they turn the cars around when we said we would test?” she asks.
Holthaus remains convinced the problem wasn’t on her end. “I’ve shipped a lot of soybeans and there haven’t been any problems. There are enough people out there selling conventional as organic and getting away with it (but we aren’t one of them).”
Rablin emphasizes that she is not trying to blame anyone. “I'm just trying to get to the bottom of an issue that’s caused a lot of pain,” she says.
NOP deciding whether to investigate
Neither party’s organic certifier—Nevada Department of Agriculture for Nevada Soy Products and Quality Assurance International for the supplier—wants to discuss the dispute at this time.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture has filed a complaint with the NOP for Nevada Soy Products. “The NOP is determining if an investigation will go forward,” says Peggy McKie, agriculturist with Nevada Department of Agriculture.
NOP spokesperson Joan Shaffer says, “We are committed to the integrity of the standards. We review every complaint and decide what the appropriate action is. If it warrants an investigation, we proceed.”
NOP will gather information from both organic certifiers to review the case.
An unidentified organic industry representative describes the incident as “an ugly, strange deal” and predicts, “It will end up in an ugly lawsuit.”
Randhawa says the incident has made Nevada Soy Products conduct extensive GMO testing. “They are very conscientious and doing everything possible to not let it happen again,” he says.
Editor’s Note: This incident highlights how GMO contamination problems can damage organic processors and suppliers, causing financial losses, ruining reputations, and pitting organic companies against each other. It demonstrates the need for national and/or state legislation to protect organic producers and processors against GMO contamination. This would place responsibility for such problems where it should be—with biotechnology companies.
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report June 2007.