Woolworths pulls organic baby spinach from shelves

26 September 2018 - 17:47
Image: Bruce Gorton

Why did packs of Woolworths’ organic baby spinach disappear from its shelves recently?

The short answer is its organic certification has been called into question after several rounds of independent testing.

Responding to numerous requests since 2015 from consumers to test whether Woolworths’ organic vegetables live up to their organic claim‚ the Cape Town-based organisation TOPIC - The Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers - had the retailer’s organic sweet potatoes and baby spinach products tested for pesticide residues.

The products are labelled with the BCS Öko-Garantie logo‚ a global organic certifier‚ and the two farms which grow the organic sweet potatoes and baby spinach are certified under the European Organic Regulations.

After a long‚ stop-start investigation spanning six months‚ TOPIC - an organisation funded by consumers and retailers committed to transparency - released its findings on Wednesday.

While no pesticide residues were found on the organic sweet potatoes‚ very low levels of four pesticides were found on the organic spinach samples.

Of those‚ three are allowed for use in organic farming but one‚ fluopyram‚ is a highly persistent fungicide which is not allowed in organic agriculture.

It’s usually used for grapes‚ berries‚ fruit and tomatoes but not for spinach‚ the TOPIC report says.

Woolworths questioned the result‚ TOPIC said‚ as their supplier does not use the fungicide on its spinach.

“We have no information as to how this might have got onto the spinach‚” the organisation said‚ ”but it was possibly contamination drift from a nearby field or during harvesting and processing."

The organic certifier BCS told TOPIC that in Europe‚ one pesticide not on the “allowable” list was permissible at a concentration of no more than 0.01mg/kg. The amount of fluopyram in the Woolworths’ spinach was less than that - 0.0079mg/kg.

Curiously‚ Woolworths‚ having co-operated fully with TOPIC‚ conducted its own tests on the organic spinach and then withdrew the organic spinach from sale “without disclosing the results of the tests or the reason for taking the product out of stores”‚ TOPIC said.

Responding‚ Woolworths told TimesLIVE that it was “not satisfied” with the results of the independent pesticide residue testing of its organic baby spinach‚ which it commissioned.

“We have consequently stopped production of our organic baby spinach.”

South Africa does not have any official regulations for organic farming; BCS follows the EU organic regulations.

TOPIC concluded its report by saying that the government departments responsible for setting maximum residue levels appropriate to South Africa had yet to draft an updated list of registered actives‚ “let alone safety data”.

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