Are Organic Milk Inspections Falling Short?

Audit report suggests a lack of testing for genetically modified materials.

organic milk
Is your milk really organic? A new audit says inspectors aren't testing enough for genetically modified material. (Photo: Chris Ted/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

If you’re stretching your budget by springing for certified organic milk, it turns out you may not be getting your money’s worth, according to audit results released last month by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). 

“It’s not that investigators found traces of prohibited genetically modified material in milk. They did not. What they did find is that the agents who certify which milks can carry the USDA Organic label aren’t looking for it,” reports ABC News.

What does that mean? In many cases, the reason investigators aren’t finding traces of these materials is that they’re simply not testing for them. “Unless certifying agents utilize GM detection to identify potential violations,” reads the OIG report, “there cannot be reasonable assurance that certifiers are identifying and ensuring that GM material is not contaminating organic feed and forage.” 

That wasn’t the only lapse. OIG found that the tankers used to transport bulk, raw organic milk were not being sanitized using National Organic Program (NOP) standards; and that agents were giving farmers a heads-up prior to inspections of organic dairy operations. While the OIG report reviewed national NOP operations, their review of certifying agents, organic milk producers, processors and transporters focused on the state of Texas, because the office assigned to conduct the audit was based in the state, and travel costs were a concern. That narrow, single-state  perspective worries some organic milk producers.

We’re not talking about chump change. A gallon of organic whole milk averages just over $7; nearly double that of conventional milk. The organic dairy industry totaled a whopping $3.9 billion in sales in 2010, and grew over 23 percent from 2000-2008, according to the OIG.

Soo Kim, Agriculture Marketing Service spokeswoman tells TakePart in an email that the report does not question the validity of organic milk or dairy products, nor was it prompted by industry concerns.

“…the OIG identified some areas where the system can be further strengthened,” she writes.

Of the report’s findings, it was the lack of testing for genetically modified materials that was especially eyebrow-raising.

“That is the question of the day when you think about it,” says Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. If organic dairy farmers use genetically modified crops to feed their dairy cows, they’ll be decertified. The rules are very straightforward, he says.

“But what organic farmers can’t control is contamination through the wind or other transport. That’s why we’re pushing for greater transparency around GE, and greater accountability, especially when it comes to GE alfalfa,” says Maltby.

Indeed, farmers and others involved in a lawsuit over cross contamination of genetically modified crops were recently defeated when a Federal judge dismissed the case, saying the claims were unsubstantiated.

So what’s next? The AMS concurred with various report findings, including those calling for testing, and expects to have an analysis of various testing protocols by February 2013, including methods to distinguish between intentional and unavoidable GM use.

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