The new Organic Regulation (EU) 2018/848 came into force on 1 January 2022. It introduces new specifications and mechanisms to handle possible non compliances, with a focus on residues of non-authorized substances. In particular, provisions are set to describe the measures that each actor must take in the event of the presence of non‐authorised products or substances. They are complex to understand and have raised discussions between operators and regulators.

residue handling

The challenge of producing organic food in an increasingly polluted environment

Organic can’t be synonym of “residue free” food. Contaminations at very low levels are unavoidable for a number of reasons that are beyond the organic operator’s control. It is well substantiated the wide contamination of ecosystems by phytosanitary products, which affects areas located at a distance from cultivated plots, and even areas hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from their area of application. This has inevitable consequences for organics, as transition of chemical pesticides into the food chain has been demonstrated by various studies.

Non-compliance with the obligations in the organic regulation in regard to residues could lead to decertification. The organic operator must establish precautionary measures in order to minimise contamination; the problem lies in the fact that, in an increasingly polluted environment, there are limits to what the organic operator can do to protect the product from unintentional contamination.

The presence of unauthorized substances is not objective evidence to suspect that the organic production rules have been disregarded

Thus, the presence of unauthorized substances is not objective evidence to suspect that the organic production rules have been disregarded, in the same way than a clean analysis is no guarantee of organic integrity. A contextualisation of all cases is needed.

The challenge of determining the source of the contamination

An interrelated question is that the new regulation imposes an official investigation by the control bodies/authorities to determine the source and the cause of non-authorized substances. An internal OPTA Europe’s survey has shown that almost 75% of contaminations are due to a small number of substances (e.g. phosphonic acid, chlorate, bromide, dithiocarbonate) with different possible sources: its presence in organics can be the result of their use as active ingredients in plant protection products but they may also be food constituents, authorized additives, contaminants, naturally occurring, etc. In consequence, a high proportion of investigations are unable to determine the main source of the contamination, thus are not effective to determine the organic integrity.

Each official investigation takes 60-90 days average, during which the entire lot is blocked. This represents delays in the organic supply chain and economic burden for the organic operator whose product is blocked, irrespective of who is at fault. In particular, products with a shorter shelf-life are either lost or must be marketed as conventional, at the expense of the operator.

A workable, proportionate and harmonized procedure to guide operators confronted to residues is missing

What is missing?

For OPTA Europe, what is missing is a workable, proportionate and harmonized procedure to guide operators confronted to residues. Besides, OPTA Europe claims that greater reliance must be placed on the regular and well-stablished risk and control system along the supply chain. For the purpose of determining the origin of contaminations and its relevance for the organic integrity, residues must always be analysed in their context.

“A focus on pesticide residues forces an ineffective strategy against fraud,” said Aurora Abad, Secretary General of OPTA Europe. “Disqualifying organic products and operators only because of residues of non-authorized substances whose origin cannot be determined discredits the overall process-oriented certification system and acts as disincentive to take the path of organic food and farming, in a way that runs counter to the EU objectives of reaching 25% by 2030,” she adds.

Consider becoming a member of OPTA, the Organic Processing and Trade Association.

Author: Ariadna Coma, Journalist

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