The Organic Certification Challenges of PFAS due to Lack of Federal Regulation

May 31, 2022

The discovery of forever chemicals (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS) in the Maine agricultural landscape over the last several years has led to a significant amount of information coming to light about the state of Maine’s sanctioning and licensing of biosolids applications over decades. For producers who have come to Maine to start farming careers or who are part of generational farm families, the news that the land they are farming was spread and contaminated 20 to 30 years ago has been devastating.

Certified organic farms are not the only ones affected in Maine. PFAS contamination is an issue that will continue to present challenges to the entire agricultural sector, becoming more apparent as Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducts testing over the next several years. Organic farmers have been at the forefront because they have had the courage to be transparent and came forward and voluntarily pulled products from shelves out of concern for their customers’ health and wellbeing.

MOFGA Certification Services, LLC (MCS) is a USDA-accredited organic certifier, and has been since 2002 when the National Organic Program (NOP) was created. This means that we apply the same federal organic standard to the farms we certify in the Northeast as would any other accredited certifier. The USDA, in its role as the accreditor, ensures consistency through policy and rulemaking, training, and audits. With the NOP being a federal program under USDA, the regulations frequently tie back to federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules; the NOP regulations do not, in many cases, tie back to what a state-specific law may be. This has created a challenge for MCS in navigating between the two regulatory schemes, and we have sought guidance from the NOP. To date the NOP has not offered MCS any guidance, but agrees that there is currently nothing in the federal regulations for this situation, and that MCS needs to apply our knowledge and expertise of the federal regulations, while adhering to any state-level statute, rule or decision. The only regulatory framework suggesting intolerable food levels of PFAS in any food products, at this time, is the Maine DEP.

The NOP regulations require that land that is certified to grow organic crops be free from applied prohibited substances for 36 months (three years) prior to harvest. Unallowed synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, septage, genetically modified organisms and ionizing radiation are all prohibited by the regulations. MCS verifies this through historical land information, affidavits and onsite inspections. In the cases of PFAS contamination in Maine, all of the organic farms we certify have met the current NOP regulatory requirements for land transition.

In an effort to work with and support certified organic farmers during this time of discovery, MCS has developed a webpage on our website, mofgacertification.org/pfas, which explains how the NOP regulations apply to the current state-level statutes and thresholds and provides additional information to farms with questions.

While the science around PFAS contamination is still emerging, there are hopeful signs that remediation efforts may be able to mitigate contamination of livestock and water. If cows are given clean feed and filtered water, for example, we have seen that, over time, dairy animals are able to clear these chemicals from their bodies and the milk they produce.

Maine is leading the nation in addressing PFAS contamination on farms. We are not alone as other states and the federal government begin to learn more about contamination across the country. We hope for and advocate for significant action on this issue to ensure that Maine has the healthiest food system possible.

– Chris Grigsby, director of MOFGA Certification Services, LLC

This article was first published in the summer issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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