Organic Food Processing and Pest Management: A Pro’s Perspective
By Sharon Dobesh, M.Sc.
The demand for healthier foods continues to grow. Many food companies are developing or promoting products they can market as organic to help fulfill this increasing consumer need. Whether food processors devote a portion of their production to organic product lines or transition to function as 100 percent organic, compliance with regulatory standards is necessary in order to earn the organic product label.
Naturally, these industry standards affect how food processing facilities handle pest management. Developing a pest management plan for a food processing facility is already a necessity. Factor in organic products, and the need for effective, preventive pest management only intensifies.
Newcomers to organic product processing oftentimes forget to consider this when navigating industry regulations. Some may even falsely assume that pest management falls outside of organic standards since these tactics can mistakenly associate pesticides with toxic chemicals.
While organic product processing has some implications for pest management, there is more flexibility than many people realize. Thankfully, for food processing facilities and consumers alike, there are safe, viable options for pest management that fall well within regulatory standards for organic processing facilities. In reality, most organic processing facilities have developed very workable yet organically compliant pest management programs. The key to developing and sustaining such a program is understanding industry regulations and the role of organic certifying agents maintaining these standards.
Regulations on What Qualifies as Organic
When faced with the increasing consumer demand for organic products, many food processing companies began devising ways to market their products as healthier options. The result for consumers was overwhelming, as old products reappeared on grocery store shelves boasting new health benefits. A similar sentiment made its way across the food processing industry, as facilities struggled to understand exactly what they needed to do to earn the trust of consumers when providing organic products.
To combat the growing confusion over what “organic” means and what qualifies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the National Organic Program (NOP) as a marketing regulation in 2000 to define organic product marketing standards. Through the NOP, USDA developed explicit criteria needed for products to be labeled “100% organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients.”
While the NOP falls under the jurisdiction of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, specialized companies ensure compliance and certification. Accredited, private, organic certifying companies and their agents establish contracts with food processing companies to confirm that their programs comply with the NOP. These organic certifying agents provide written approval of each aspect of a food processing company’s plans, including pest management, to ensure their operations meet NOP standards.
Organic Processing and Pest Management
For pest management in organic processing facilities, the NOP advises a certain cadence: reliance on nonchemical methods, followed by use of certain materials from the NOP National List, then use of conventional pesticides as a last resort. These steps build on each other, providing more flexibility as pest problems persist to ensure the best and least invasive results. This approach emphasizes the use of noninvasive measures before the pursuit of more aggressive pest management methods to limit the exposure of products to chemicals that could put their organic label at risk. Therefore, a food processing company must obtain written approval from their certifying agent authorizing their pest management plans before moving forward.
The first step that the NOP recommends for pest management is reliance on nonchemical methods as much as possible. Common nonchemical pest management methods include trapping, exclusion, sanitation, temperature modification, and environmental management. When nonchemical methods become insufficient, written consent from their certifying agent can allow the use of certain materials from the NOP National List. Since chemical tools from the NOP National List are very limited in their utility for pest management, advancing to this step may not prove to be adequate. At this point, with the consent of their certifying agent, a food processing company can consider conventional pesticides in conjunction with application precautions or protections to maintain the organic integrity of products.
The introduction of conventional pesticides is not something to fear, however. The conventional pesticides suggested for organic programs are often low-impact products, which accompany protocols planned to protect organic materials from exposure during treatment. These pest management materials provide tremendous flexibility while complying with NOP regulations, allowing facilities to both protect products from pests and safeguard their organic label. This is not only because pesticide selections, applications, and precautions are usually “lower impact,” but also because there is no difference in food safety or nutritional value between organic and conventional products.
Identifying Acceptable Organic Methods
Organic certifying agents serve as the gatekeepers when it comes to understanding which methods qualify under NOP guidelines. Virtually all aspects of an organic processing plan need to be approved by the organic certifying agent, including the plan for all pesticides, even if the pesticides themselves are certified organic. This also holds true because NOP rules require record-keeping for any pesticide use, which a certifying agent can help provide.
Since certifying agents can evaluate an approach by different means, the result of what qualifies as an acceptable organic method of any facility process—pest management included—can vary. When evaluating a food processing facility’s approach, the certifying agent may consider a variety of methods acceptable to maintain organic integrity. For pest management, these methods include:
- Consideration of the protection provided by packaging or supplemental covers
- Consideration for application methods or formulations that are unlikely to have any drift, volatility, or other opportunity to contaminate
- Removal of organic materials and products from an area during treatments and their return later
- Use of outdoor preventive treatments with virtually no opportunity to contaminate organic materials indoors
As a result, approval of organic plans is ultimately between the food processor and their organic certifying service. Involving a pest management professional, however, can help balance this relationship.
Partnership with a knowledgeable pest management professional can be invaluable for navigating the planning steps, as well as viable options, limitations, and methods to maintain organic food integrity. A pest management professional can supply insight to help facilitate conversation with the certifying agent during the certification process.
To learn more about organic processing and pest management, and how a pest management professional can help your facility, visit Indfumco.com.
Sharon Dobesh joined Industrial Fumigant Company in June 2017. She has spent the last 16 years as an Extension Specialist at Kansas State University. She holds an M.Sc. in entomology from Kansas State University and a B.Sc. in crop protection-entomology option from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.