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Mainers who have purchased food from local farms certified as organic have felt safe in the knowledge that the label meant they were getting a chemical-free product.
But the discovery of high levels of forever chemicals in soil and groundwater is throwing into question the safety of food grown or raised in the state.
Songbird Organic Farm in Unity halted all sales and pulled its products from store shelves earlier this week after its water, soil and produce tested positive for toxins known collectively as forever chemicals, or PFAS and PFOS.
The growing awareness of the problem — and the uncertainty of how widespread it is throughout the state — is quickly creating a regulatory nightmare for growers where the chemicals have been found. Whether the food is certified organic or not, there are no standards that clarify when it is unsafe to eat.
To have a product certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, an advocacy group that promotes local and organic foods, a grower must prove that their land and practices meet the requirements laid out by the federal national organic program. Those include proving no prohibited substances like chemical pesticides or herbicides have been used in at least three years.
Proving that the food was free of forever chemicals has never been part of the certification process.
“Because there has been nothing in the national program about PFAS or PFOS it was never on anyone’s radar,” Sarah Alexander, executive director of MOFGA, said. “It was never anything we had to think about.”
The issue, according to Alexander, is not whether the presence of forever chemicals renders food non-organic. It’s a matter of overall food safety.
“In terms of food and farms, this is a national issue and not just an organic issue,” Alexander said.
Maine became the first state to establish thresholds for forever chemicals in food when it did so with milk and beef.
But similar thresholds do not exist for other foods such as produce and grains. Any lasting solution, according to Alexander, hinges on the state or federal government establishing specific food safety guidelines.
Without those guidelines, farmers must decide for themselves whether or how to take action.
“Songbird Organic Farm really set the example as the first farm to find out they had these high levels,” Alexander said. “They have been incredibly and immediately responsive and transparent with voluntary pulling their food from the market until further testing can be done.”
The state has begun testing food to establish PFAS and PFOS thresholds and guidelines, according to Nancy McBrady, director of the bureau of agriculture, food and rural resources at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“We are now in a leading role nationally and it’s lonely,” McBrady said. “We want more help and really need federal help and we take every opportunity to explain that to them when we get the chance.”
Once those forever chemical guidelines are set, MOFGA could start applying them to the organic certification process.
Many of the farmers dealing with potential forever chemical issues are victims of decisions and practices made decades before they even took ownership of their land. As the Maine Department of Environmental Protection continues testing sludge and septage sites around the state, the number of contaminated farms will likely increase.
“Even though they have been doing the best organic management practices, this is something that is outside their control,” Alexander said. “And it can affect any farm no matter their current practices because these are chemicals that were applied through biosolids, in many cases decades ago, and they are just finding out about them.”
Despite the lack of guidelines, there is no reason to panic, according to Tricia Rouleau, farm network director at Maine Farmland Trust.
“I know it feels like a scary issue because it is all new and constantly changing and we are learning so much on a daily basis,” Rouleau said. “It’s a moving target and we are trying to stay on top of all the changes.”
Rouleau said she is confident solutions will be found, especially since multiple state agencies and groups like MOFGA and Farmland Trust are all working together on the issue.
“No, this is not the death knell for organic farming in Maine,” Alexander said.
Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000. More by Julia Bayly