DENVER - Organic produce is supposed to be free from synthetic chemicals and governed with strict guidelines, but there are no established testing procedures in place.
"USDA Certified" organic produce can carry a price 20-to-30 percent higher than conventionally grown produce. Consequently, organics have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
-- Act of 1990 --
Organics are overseen by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
It required the United States Department of Agriculture to set up an organics program to oversee processing, distribution and certification. It’s called the National Organic Program.
The program, in turn, oversees third party certifiers around the world who give products the USDA Certified stamp of approval. According to the USDA, there are 85 certifying agents who handle about 30,000 operating farms.
The law also requires a strict examination of "residue testing" for pesticides.
But now, 22 years after the law was enacted, those tests are not happening.
The Office of the Inspector General did an audit of the USDA's organics program in 2010. The report states that the organics program did not establish testing procedures and the certifying agents were not performing periodic residue testing as required by law.
“Congress indicated that certifiers should be doing periodic residue testing and that had never been established,” said Miles McEvoy, who heads the USDA organics program.
-- Our testing --
7NEWS joined with 10 of our sister stations across the country and went to various stores to purchase organic produce.
From three different stores in Denver we purchased cucumbers, red bell peppers and mini sweet peppers. Our sister stations bought a variety of other fruits and vegetables at stores in other cities.
Each sample from across the country was shipped overnight to Wil Sumner's certified lab in California.
In all, Sumner tested 33 different types of organic produce from 11 different countries.
-- Our results --
Twelve percent had pesticide residues and an additional 10 percent had trace amounts of pesticides.
"By definition, organic does not mean chemical-free. It just means it is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers," said Sumner. "It doesn't mean that they are not toxic."
It is true some farmers use chemicals when they shouldn’t. But more often, contamination comes from the soil where toxic chemicals like DDT were used decades ago. These toxins are not going away anytime soon.
There is also cross-contamination.
"There are a lot of different compounds out there, and they are being used by both groups -- conventional and organic growers. And, these are all drifting in different directions," said Sumner.
In addition to conventional pesticides blowing onto organic farms, Sumner said cross-contamination could happen in the shipping process. It could also happen in the back room of the store.
Four pieces of our organic produce tested positive for residues. They all came from Mexico.
The lab found a chemical called Dieldrin in the mini pumpkins we tested and DDD in the yellow squash -- a cousin of DDT. Both are extremely toxic, both are banned, and both can remain in the soil for decades.
The tomatoes had residue of Spinocyn-A, which is a conventional pesticide recently approved for organics.
All three of the items had small amounts of chemical residue and would be allowed for sale by the USDA.
The only item in our test to violate federal standards was fresh basil purchased from a Trader Joe's on Shea and Tatum Boulevards in Phoenix, Arizona. Sumner said it had Metalaxyl in it, which isn't legal for organics.
Sumner said the Food and Drug Administration would make all retailers pull that product from shelves.
-- Periodic residue testing --
The good news? The government is finally setting up guidelines for testing.
7NEWS found a memo from McEvoy requiring all third party certifiers to start testing five percent of operating farms both here and abroad. This testing is supposed to start this year.
"The new periodic residue testing program will discourage mislabeling and facilitate our oversight of USDA organic products around the world. This will allow us to prevent residues of a wide variety of prohibited substances, thus meeting consumer expectations. Periodic residue testing is an important tool to protect the integrity of USDA organic products around the world," the memo said.
“How well that's implemented overseas? Can the USDA have the staff over there to make sure it is being run the same? That's the question,” said Sumner.
However, on all produce you buy, Sumner recommends to simply wash your food. That can remove about 50 percent of residues.
-- For more information: --
- Mayo Clinic study on health benefits of organic foods: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/organic-food/NU00255
Stanford School of Medicine study on health benefits of organic foods: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/september/organic.html