Organic growers work diligently to meet the high demand for organic produce and protect consumers from foodborne illness. Yet many organic growers face serious obstacles in meeting both food safety requirements and USDA National Organic Program standards.

According to a 2019 USDA Organic Survey, compliance with food safety regulations is one of the greatest challenges facing organic farming today, creating hardship for growers of all scales–large and small–to maintain their organic certification. Some of these challenges can be solved by equipping organic growers with better evidence-based guidance and technologies, but other obstacles result from contradictions between food safety and organic regulations.

Resolving these deeper tensions will require a concerted effort across the supply chain and with organic and food safety regulators and inspectors to adopt a shared understanding of how to grow food both organically and safely.

What causes tension between organic practices and food safety requirements?

Practicing food safety means minimizing the risk that human pathogens like pathogenic E. coli (not all E. coli are pathogenic and lead to foodborne illness) and Salmonella could contaminate fresh produce on the farm. Many potentially dangerous pathogens spread through animal waste, including manure. Some food safety requirements discourage growers from using compost and other organic soil amendments of animal origin, while others pressure growers to restrict wildlife and their habitat on or near the farm.

However, organic growers rely on organic soil amendments to keep their fields fertile, and have a responsibility to promote biodiversity that is written into USDA National Organic Program standards.

These hindrances not only impact farm practices and decision-making, but also the ability of growers to pursue organic certification, restricting access to the high-value organic market and growth of their operations, particularly for organic specialty produce growers.


Overall aim

Finding solutions to the negative impacts of regulatory siloing on organic specialty growers.

Researchers from the University of Rhode Island and other collaborating universities were awarded a $3.5 million USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative grant (Award # 2023-51300-40950) to help reduce uncertainty around safe use of organic soil amendments by empowering growers and industry with tailored risk-assessment and decision-making tools for easier selection and safe use of organic soil amendments. The project will also clarify the rules for both food safety and organic regulations to organic certifiers, food safety inspectors, farm advisors and farmers alike, with the goal of creating shared understanding along the supply chain and among regulators.


Main Project Objective

What is it that the scientists hope to achieve?

The ultimate goal of the "Developing Risk-Assessment, Educational, and Communication Tools to Lower Food Safety Barriers for Organic Specialty Crop Growers" project is to improve access to organic soil amendments for growers.

To accomplish this, the team aims to:

  • Conduct a series of needs assessments and surveys that increase the understanding of available organic soil amendments for organic farmers and their associated food safety risks
  • Develop a suite of outreach and educational materials to build shared language and understanding between organic and food safety regulatory agencies of the unique food safety and farm management strategies growers take
  • Provide regional training for farm advisors and growers


Project Approach

How do scientists plan to develop tools for growers to help them comply with both FDA food safety and USDA National Organic Program requirements?

From an earlier survey, the research team found that over half of organic vegetable and fruit farmers who responded experience difficulty complying with both organic and food safety standards. From there, the same survey helped scientists identify from the respondents a lack of effective tools and information for selecting appropriate organic soil amendments that limit food safety risks, and the obstacles created for growers in directing excessive time and resources toward redundant documentation, record-keeping, and inspections to meet multiple requirements.

With these discoveries in mind, moving forward, the team will:

  • Synthesize and standardize the current evidence and literature available on food safety risks from organic soil amendments,
  • Perform a national survey of soil testing labs to understand and describe the pathogenic testing methods that are available for growers,
  • Survey and assess all regional biological soil amendments that are available to organic growers and evaluate their risks.
  • Develop several risk-based models to evaluate different pre-harvest food safety risks under different scenarios, weighing factors such as soil characteristics, irrigation practices, fertilizers, and crops, etc.
    • This data will merge into forming a web-based risk assessment tool to allow farm advisors in both cooperative extension and the private sector to guide growers in making informed decisions about soil amendments.
  • Perform a needs assessment, surveying farm advisors, auditors, certifiers, and buyers of organic produce to identify training and stakeholder needs to develop region-specific outreach programs and training modules that speak to the unique food safety needs of organic growers.

Eventually, all of this information will be made available through in-person workshops throughout the U.S. and train-the-trainer modules, and other forms of public communication and outreach.


Project Timeline and Next Steps

The activities for this four-year project will begin in 2024. 
Year 1
  • Synthesize available evidence on food safety risks associated with organic soil amendments.
  • Survey labs serving each region in the U.S. to assess consistency of testing methods.
  • Survey and assess types of organic soil amendments available on the market and used by organic growers in study regions.
  • Perform a quantitative risk assessment using Bayesian belief networks & scenario trees.
    • Use a systems approach to predict the pathway of foodborne pathogens in the pre-harvest produce environments.
    • Target regions and representative partners will be identified and consulted to inform risk assessment models with information about organic practices relevant to their farmer groups and regions.
Year 2
  • Develop a user-friendly dashboard to integrate methods and results of the risk assessment models.
  • Survey farm advisors and extension professionals, auditors, certifiers, and buyers.
  • Analyze the subsequent survey data.
Year 3
  • Develop region-specific training programs for growers, auditors, and certifiers, and train-the-trainer modules for advisors and extension professionals to execute training programs.
  • Build an online training module tailored to auditors and certifiers.
  • Develop multimedia-based tools to help organic growers communicate food safety practices to buyers.
Year 4
  • Perform public outreach by hosting regional training workshops and webinars with growers and other agricultural professionals, such as organic industry, food safety certifiers, and auditors.




** Note that this research was developed from earlier planning grant efforts in 2020:

Addressing Incongruities between Food Safety Management and National Organic Program Standards

Food producers follow important safety rules that protect consumers from illness, yet many organic farmers face insurmountable financial barriers and obstacles in meeting food safety requirements and the USDA National Organic Program standards.

These regulatory requirements often contradict other crucial organic farming principles, and because of this, compliance with food safety regulations is one of the greatest challenges facing organic farming today, creating hardships for farmers to maintain their organic certification. According to a USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service 2019 Organic Survey, regulatory problems were identified as the most significant challenge for farmers.  

The goal of this project is to reduce the burden of compliance with multiple regulations by equipping organic farmers and industry stakeholders with cost-effective and organic-compliant solutions for wildlife intrusion, microbial field testing and sanitizers, and practical policies that empower growers to comply with important food safety best practices and retain their organic certification. 

Project details

Organic farmers must support biodiversity but some food safety concerns pressure farmers to restrict habitat and wildlife on or near the farm. Other incongruities include prohibiting the use of essential compost manures to replenish soils as these amendments are perceived as a risk to food safety, and certain pretreatments for water sanitation that fall into conflict with the substances allowed for organic certification and on-farm use. 

While the organic farming community has identified compliance with food safety and other regulations as a critical issue, up until now, no entity has captured the collective experience of struggling to comply with these regulations and other potential and important knowledge gaps facing the organic farming community.  

This planning grant will fill this gap by conducting a needs assessment utilizing a national survey and convening a multi-stakeholder summit to pinpoint the most challenging incongruities between food safety and USDA National Organic Program (NOP) policies.  These activities will determine which producers are most impacted on a national level and which food safety requirements are most difficult to synchronize with NOP standards, while also prioritizing which research and knowledge gaps can best address these specific conflicts. 

The long-term impact of this research is to ultimately provide organic growers and industry members with cost-effective and organic-compliant tools to mitigate food safety risks and retain their third-party certification. Specifically, the aim is to collaborate with organic farmers, certifiers and researchers to develop a full USDA OREI (Organic Research Extension Research Initiative) proposal for 2023 submission. 

We have identified key needs. These include but are not limited to:  

  • Determine regulatory conflicts between the NOP and various food safety requirements. 
  • Quantify the risks of wildlife intrusion and develop solutions when necessary. 
  • Assess the prevalence of microbial contamination from windborne dust. 
  • Develop efficient, accurate, and affordable in-field testing to monitor for potential microbial contamination from various sources. 
  • Develop effective sanitizers that are compliant with NOP standards, and validate their efficacy to improve food safety.