Row over organic standards after glyphosate found in Tesco, Waitrose organic products

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Glyphosate detected in cereal and grain products ©iStock
Glyphosate detected in cereal and grain products ©iStock
Campaign group the Organics Council has flagged the “potentially widespread contamination” of glyphosate in organic grain and cereal products but UK certification body the Soil Association played down the findings.

Environmental action group the Organics Council has detected “trace levels​” of the pesticide glyphosate in two out of the three certified organic grain and cereal products it tested as part of its organic product multi-residue pesticide survey basket, which examined various organic certified items purchased at UK supermarkets.

Organics Council 2018 organic product pesticide survey basket content: 

Ocado Organic Eggs
SO Organic Honey 340g
SO Organic Sunflower oil 1L
Tesco Organic Onions 0.75kg
Duchy Organic Farmhouse Batch Wholemeal 0.8kg
Ocado Organic White Potatoes 2kg
Duchy Organic Carrots 1kg
Wholegood Organic Oranges 1.8kg
SO Organic Bananas 1kg
SO Organic Apples Royal Gala 6nos
Tesco Organic Plain Flour 1kg
Whole Earth Golden Organic Corn Flakes 375g

Waitrose Duchy Organic Farmhouse Batch wholemeal bread and Tesco Organic Plain Flour both tested positive for the pesticide at below the quantification threshold of 0.01mg/kg but at concentrations higher than 0.002mg/kg, the Organics Council said. Whole Earth Golden Organic Corn Flakes – the third cereal product examined in the survey – was not found to contain glyphosate.

The maximum statutory permitted pesticide glyphosate residue level is 0.01 mg/kg in the EU, while 0.002mg/kg is the lowest limit of quantification available by the test method used. The results fell somewhere between these two levels but the Organics Council said it cannot tell “how close​” to the threshold limit the glyphosate in these products were.

The UK representative of Germany’s Tentamus Group lab network, Minerva, carried out the tests. Samples were sent by them to their network lab Bilacon. As part of the same survey, the Organic Council also detected cyromazine in a single organic egg sample of Ocado Organic Eggs​.

A threat to the ‘efficacy and credibility of organic farming’

The Organics Council is a crowd-funded volunteer organisation with the stated aim of campaigning to “make organics more organic​”. It began its research two years.

Assuming no “deliberate malpractice​”, the Council said that historic soil contamination is one potential source of contamination. If this were the case it would highlight “failures when commissioning new organic farm sites​”, the Council said.

The environmentalists suggested that the transfer of contaminating substances between organic and non-organic farms could be another source of contamination due to “poorly set up buffer zone separation statutory requirements​”. Contamination could also have occurred post-harvest in mixed produce processing facilities, the Organic Council noted.

The Organic Council's Dr Esme Purdie, who was formerly an environmental microbiology and toxicology specialist at King’s College London, said that the results place a question mark over the effectiveness of measures to separate organic and conventional products.

“Assuming that no deliberate mal-practice has taken place here, it is evident that the current systems used to separate conventional and organic farming methods are not working. The apparent persistence and widespread dispersion of glyphosate in soils and water due to use in conventional farming, threatens the efficacy and credibility of organic farming,”​ Dr Purdie commented.

“This survey results highlight that the current organic regulations are not effectively protecting organic produce and an urgent review of agricultural policies and systems are required to stop any further contamination of our soils with persistent and harmful contaminants, such as glyphosate.”

‘An exaggeration at best, misleading at worst’

UK organic certification body the Soil Association was more conservative in its interpretation of the survey’s findings.

“Extrapolating these results to be indicative of widespread contamination with carcinogenic pesticide of organic grain and cereal products sold in UK supermarkets is an exaggeration at best, misleading at worst,”​ a spokesperson for the organisation told FoodNavigator.

“Regarding the results claimed for organic flour, the lab cannot quantify glyphosate at less than .01 mg/kg and is therefore inconclusive on what the level is. Organics Council claim it is more than .002 mg/kg but this level is so low (2 parts per 100 million) that it is at the limit of detection,​” the spokesperson stressed.

The Soil Association also highlighted what it termed a “significant lack of detail​” released by the Organic Council. The spokesperson continued: “The Soil Association is not able to comment on whether this is a genuine survey because of the significant lack of detail. The release indicates that only three samples were taken. Key information needed to make sense of any testing for contamination includes: sampling protocols, sample integrity, whether the test is accredited appropriately, and scientific interpretation of the results.”

However, the Soil Association and the Organics Council agree on one point: the need to move away from a reliance on pesticides in agricultural production.

“Organic foods occasionally contain traces of pesticides at very low levels, usually as a result of environmental contamination. This is exactly the reason we need to move to other ways of farming, less reliant on pesticides,”​ the spokesperson suggested.

For its part, Waitrose told FoodNavigator: “We are not aware of the Organics Council, or their methodology, and we know that The Soil Association has serious concerns about the validity of these findings."

Tesco did not respond to requests for comment.

'They only listen to the industry' 

A spokesperson for the Organics Council questioned the Soil Association's motives for attempting to undermine the credibility of its tests, stressing that the big beast of organic certification could have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. The Soil Association did not contact the Organics Council prior to releasing its public statement in order to gain access to details of the test results and methodology, the spokesperson noted. 

"The Soil Association seems only to be listening to its trade partners when they should pay attention to what the public wants, which is purer organics,"​ the spokesperson told FoodNavigator. 

The Council has also reached out to both Tesco and Waitrose. "We have now contacted Tesco and Waitrose supermarkets asking for their feedback or complaint grounds about our test reports and if they need assistance verifying their organic products were tainted with banned substances."

Glyphosate controversy

Glyphosate is a pesticide used in the cultivation of conventional agricultural products. The chemical was first authorised for use in the EU in 1974 by US agri-giant Monsanto under the Roundup brand. Today, it is one of the most commonly used weed killers in the EU.

Glyphosate’s use in conventional farming has provoked considerable controversy in Europe due to concerns over negative health benefits.

In 2015, report from the World Health Organization’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans​”.

Several subsequent studies, including those conducted by the EU’s food (EFSA) and chemicals (ECHA) agencies, concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the link between glyphosate and cancer risk.

Last year, when its 15-year license expired, EU governments backed a European Commission proposal for a five-year extension​ by a narrow margin.

Its use in organic farming is prohibited.

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