In early June, TOPIC SA Supporter, Organic Zone owner Allister McGregor, asked us to look into one of their suppliers, Naturally Organic, as a customer had found some blue material on their organic lettuce that did not appear to be of organic origin. In response, Organic Zone investigated and then pulled all the produce from that supplier from its shelves.
The retailer does several lab tests
The retailer sent the blue material found on the lettuce to a laboratory for analysis. It was identified as a snail poison product with the active ingredient metaldehyde.
Organic Zone then conducted further testing on Naturally Organic’s produce such as organic beetroot, carrots and coriander. The second issue that emerged was trace amounts (less than 0.02 mg/kg) of Didecyldimethylammonium Chloride (DDAC) were found on the organic coriander. No pesticides or chemical compounds were found on the other produce.
DDAC has bactericidal, virucidal and fungicidal properties and is used as an antiseptic for wood, disinfectant for cleaning and as a fungicide for crops. Note that the amount found was extremely low, below the limit of quantification.
According to Alan Rosenberg, chairman of the South African Organic Sector Organisation (SAOSO), neither of these chemicals are permitted for use in organic farming or production as per the SAOSO standards (see below).
What does organic mean?
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM – Organics International) states that “organic agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.”
The latest SAOSO Standard For Organic Production And Processing dated June 2020 details the approved substances for use in organic production and processing, including pest and disease control.
What does South African law say about organics and its labelling?
There is currently no legislation governing the production of organic food in South Africa. According to labelling expert, Glyn Fogell, neither the Department of Health nor the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) have moved forward with the regulations despite working on them for a while.
Fogell says: “The DALRRD position is that you may describe a foodstuff as “organic” if it, or its components, were produced in conformity with an internationally recognised standard.”
Rosenberg noted the lack of policy and regulations and commented that through SAOSO he has been working with government for decades in an attempt to legally define the term ‘organic’ and what it means. He said: “This legislation gap highlights the importance of consumer organisations like TOPIC to help safeguard the industry and protect the consumer.”
The local organic produce industry can make use of international regulations governed by IFOAM and local regulations governed by SAOSO. Farmers can then certify through international bodies such as CERES, SGS, Ecocert and Control Union or they can certify through a locally focused quality assurance system called Participatory Guarantee Systems or PGS.
All these bodies inspect the farms to ensure conformity to relevant regulations and the supplier’s packaging then carries either an official organic certification number or a PGS label for the consumer to have confidence that checks and balances are in place. A unique feature of PGS is that it encourages both retailers and consumers to participate in the process by attending farm visits, meeting the farmer and his peers, and seeing the farm and its practices first-hand.
TOPIC engages with Naturally Organic
Naturally Organic is based in Philippi in Cape Town’s “bread basket”, the Philippi Horticultural Area or PHA. The farm is owned and operated by Skye Fehlmann and has been running since 2004. Naturally Organic claims the produce grown on the farm is organic and also resells organic produce from other farms.
TOPIC emailed Fehlmann asking what organic standards he was following, his certification status, and his current internal testing/auditing procedures. Fehlmann responded that same day and has continued to be very responsive to our questions.
Naturally Organic’s certification
Naturally Organic is currently not certified organic and was last certified by CERES for the period March 2017 to March 2018. Fehlmann said the following:
“I have previously been certified with 3 different bodies. First was BDOCA (which after the founder passed away the company fell away) and then with Control Union and then CERES. The reason I stopped certifying was there was always this issue with seed.
“Seed in organic farming is not allowed to be treated which is an issue as all seed coming into the country is treated and the ones which are not treated are generally of lesser quality of fruit. I almost lost my business as I had such bad harvests with the untreated seed I could find. So with this I stopped certifying and also felt the extra costs and stresses of certifying did not weigh in with my size and how little I actually produce.”
Snail control on organic farms
As mentioned, the blue material found on the lettuce was identified as a snail poison product. The active ingredient in this product is metaldehyde which is a neurotoxicant and is toxic to pets, birds, domestic animals, wildlife and humans with small ingestions being potentially life threatening. This chemical has also been found to show up in drinking water after being used on farms.
Customer photograph of blue material found on Naturally Organic lettuce
Fehlmann denied using snail poison on his farm as he says he has a working snail system that entails keeping everything weed free so that snails don’t have a breeding ground plus “two ladies who spend two days a week picking snails off poles, sprayers and plants.” He believes the snail poison contamination came from buckets being used on the farm that have been shared with a neighbour who farms conventionally. He said the following:
“Issue here is bad management from my side. I have lots of guys just doing things I ask and me not always checking the condition of things, ie. cleanliness of buckets received. I have to admit I’m poor here and my buckets get mixed around a lot from using it to drain from a tractor or mixing my spray products and when people need something they just grab. I’m embarrassed by this as it should have been sorted out long ago.”
According to the SAOSO standards, all relevant measures must be taken to ensure that organic soil and products are protected from contamination by substances prohibited in organic farming. The onus is on the farmer to “monitor crops, soil, water, and inputs for risks of contamination by prohibited substances and environmental contaminants”. The standards also state that the “direct use or application of a prohibited method or material renders that product no longer organic.”
Rat poison and vermin control on organic farms
During correspondence with the retailer before the blue material was positively identified as snail poison, Fehlmann was concerned that it was rat poison as they do use it in their own garden, around their house and around the packhouse. The packhouse pest control is managed by an outside company. He also admitted to making a decision to place rat poison at each end of the sweet corn rows in the field.
Fehlmann said the following: “What we found was that at the end of the sweet corn season, there were a lot of mice or rats eating the cobs straight out of the field. Rat poison was put at each end of the sweet corn rows in the field.”
According to SAOSO when dealing with infestation, specific traps and a few bait products are approved rodent control measures.
Note that the tests did not identify any rat poison residue on the produce from the farm.
Trace particles of Didecyldimethylammonium Chloride (DDAC)
According to Fehlmann, DDAC is not a chemical used on the farm for production or cleaning as he uses hydrogen peroxide for these purposes. Due to the traces amount found (<0.02 mg/kg) and the widespread use of sanitisers and disinfectants during the current pandemic, it is possible that this contamination has come from a sanitising product.
Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) as as an assurance of organically grown produce
Fehlmann has indicated that he intends to work with a Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) to certify his farm and produce.
PGS is a locally focused quality assurance system that is more affordable than third party certification. They endorse producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange. Their focus is on local markets, short supply chains and smallholder farmers.
Comment from PGS SA
Treasurer from PGS SA, Raymond Auerbach, said the following:
“Naturally Organic farms in a difficult area, and has a good track record, and I am glad to hear that they were honest and transparent about their shortcomings.
“Nevertheless, it must be made clear that neither snail bait (which Skye claims came from the neighbour through using contaminated buckets), nor rat poison (which he admits he used) are allowed in organic farming, except for the specifically “organic” types of product which have been developed; metaldehyde is usually used for killing gastropods, including slugs and snails. I don’t know which rat control product Skye used, as this is not mentioned.
“The SAOSO standard, and all other organic standards, forbid the use of all pest and disease control substances, except products which have been shown to be safe for the environment.
“Our local PGS group recently had a similar experience where, during a farm visit, the farmer explained that while she was away her staff had sprayed a herbicide obtained from a neighbour on a small patch of land. Although we were sympathetic, we insisted that that area should be withdrawn from organic production for two years.
“We owe it to consumers to ensure the compliance of producers with the letter and the spirit of organic regulations. This is not easy to do, and we call on government to support the organic sector with appropriate research.
“We commend TOPIC on this important investigation.”
Comments from retailers selling organic produce
Naturally Organic is one of the larger fresh produce suppliers to Organic Zone’s two shops in Lakeside and Rondebosch.
McGregor said the following:
“We are grateful to TOPIC for assisting us with this investigation and helping to ensure that organic standards are kept high and that the consumer is protected.
“We will continue to follow the PGS process with Naturally Organic and the wisdom gained from the process helps better inform our policies going forward which will permeate through to all of our suppliers.”
Naturally Organic also supplies subscription-based meal-kit service UCOOK. Representatives from UCOOK attended a July PGS farm visit and Market Box Procurement Lead, Ryan Ausker, said the following:
The PHA is an incredibly valuable area in the city landscape and first impressions of Naturally Organic were similar to many Philippi farms: sandy soils, salty air, and beds on beds of green vegetables. The area’s agricultural density means that your neighbour’s actions may impact your operations in some way and it is important to acknowledge that each farm is not an island and can’t be seen as such.
“I believe that with the boundary fencing, hedgerows, and shade tunnels an adequate buffer is now in place. Furthermore, a systematic approach to the tools, harvest equipment, and wash pack station has been undertaken to ensure contamination does not occur again.
“The principles and practices instilled at Naturally Organic stand as a beacon of hope for the greater PHA, for other farmers to take note and strive towards creating a more holistic approach to agriculture that isn’t dependent on chemical inputs.
“While I recognise there was a contamination at Naturally Organic, I believe that as a community we need to be understanding and empathetic, able to acknowledge the wrongdoing and like Skye, accept and make the necessary changes to improve our practices. The aim is to build the body of work around regenerative and organic agriculture bringing it to a broader audience and developing the culture from strength to strength.”
The customer responds…
Alana Mitchell, the customer who found the snail poison on the lettuce said the following:
“The way that Organic Zone and Naturally Organic responded to the situation has been both commendable and inspiring. Much time, energy and money has been invested and the situation was taken very seriously by all involved.
“After my illuminating meeting with Allister from Organic Zone, I felt reassured that this was a best case scenario where the farmer had made a genuine mistake and has wholeheartedly embraced the changes needed. Even better, all of the positive repercussions that have come out of the process just goes to show that when you give Organic Zone lemons, they just make refreshing, tasty lemonade. I have renewed trust in the Naturally Organic brand and look forward to seeing them grow.”
This investigation has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses within the organic sector. On the one hand, government regulation and oversight are non-existent, exposing the industry to not only the risk of fraud but a lack of legal mechanisms to pursue it. On the other hand, collaboration between vigilant consumers, committed retailers and other organisations can be a powerful safeguard in the system to ensure integrity, label accuracy, and most importantly, that the consumer remains protected.
From the consumer’s point of view, this case has highlighted the need for production guarantees or certification as soon as a product makes a label claim. From the retailer’s perspective it demonstrates the importance of in-house procedures where certifications are regularly verified. And finally, related to an organic farm, any assessment of processes – via PGS or third party – needs to be done on an annual basis and the onus is on the farmer to renew his certification before it expires.
Rosenberg said: “According to IFOAM and SAOSO standards, Naturally Organic’s produce cannot currently be labelled as organic. However, taking corrective actions on the farm during the conversion process could remedy this after a time period, as detailed by the PGS involved.”
Skye Fehlmann has been transparent and forthcoming with TOPIC SA during this whole process. He has acknowledged that mistakes were made and expressed his desire to rectify them through his engagement with the Overberg PGS.
A PGS farm visit was necessary to determine the corrective actions required which then took place on the 23rd of July 2020. The Overberg PGS has since issued a certificate which states that Naturally Organic “is endorsed to sell their products as organic in conversion” and Fehlmann was informed that the farm will remain in conversion for a period of 12 months.
Going forward, Naturally Organic’s produce will bear a sticker that states “PGS Organic in Conversion” which informs the customer of the status of the produce.
This investigation has been a vital collaboration between many stakeholders and can be considered an important contribution towards the pursuit of transparency, accurate labelling and organics in South Africa.
TOPIC works with retailers and producers who are committed to transparency and we are supported by Faithful to Nature, Wellness Warehouse, Organic Zone, Jackson’s Real Food Market, Bryanston Organic & Natural Market and UCOOK.
We have completed numerous successful investigations so far, including Elgin Free Range Chicken, Nature’s Choice GMO-free claims, Woolworth’s organic vegetables, Cape Town Market, Mrs BreadCare, Wakaberry, Le Chocolatier, Freedom Bakery, Frys and Futurelife.
Consumers are encouraged to nominate products for investigation via our online form: https://buff.ly/2PCSBK8