The two products sent for testing - voted for by consumers on their Facebook page - were Woolies organic baby spinach and sweet potatoes.

Was it coincidence or synchronicity that Topic SA, an acronym for Testing of Products Initiated by Consumers, somehow timed the release of the results of its eighth investigation into the veracity of label claims with World Environment Health Day?

Either way, Woolies customers who have been forking out a little extra for their organic fresh produce might now think twice about paying more for less (pesticide, that is).

Topic, which is funded by consumers and specialist retailers, conducts laboratory testing, farm and factory visits and other means to verify the accuracy of ingredient and label claims.

In a statement, the group said it had concluded its latest probe to verify that Woolworth’s organic vegetables were truly organic and pesticide-free, and found the retailer wanting.

“Since 2015, consumers have nominated numerous Woolworth’s organic vegetables such as courgettes, corn, sweet potatoes, potatoes and spinach, and have queried whether the produce is pesticide-free, irradiated, chlorine-washed or sprayed with the herbicide Glyphosate. The most nominated concern was whether the produce was pesticide-free, so we focused on this label claim,” it said.

The two products sent for testing - voted for by consumers on their Facebook page - were Woolies organic baby spinach and sweet potatoes, labelled with the BCS Öko-Garantie logo, a global organic certifier.

In April, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) raised concern about spinach, again placing it on its “Dirty Dozen” list of the conventionally farmed fresh produce contaminated with the highest concentrations of pesticide, alongside strawberries, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers. (The so-called “Clean 15”, in which few residues were detected, include avocados, sweet- corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, aubergines, kiwis, melons, cauliflower and broccoli.)

Washing or peeling don’t generally remove pesticide residues from such produce, which is why the EWG’s analysis of produce in the American market indicated that nearly 70% of samples were contaminated with pesticide residues.

But organic produce is the superior option, right? Not so fast. Topic not only found conventional pesticide residue on Woolies’ supposed organic baby spinach, it says the organic certification had expired and, after a final round of testing, the retailer stopped co-operating with its investigation.

And this investigation took far too long: Topic sent a letter to Woolworths on March 20 and only received a response almost two months later, on May 14. “They stated that supplying certified organic products was part of their Good Food Journey and that the organic status is verified and certified by independent certification organisations whose logo is displayed on the product packaging as part of the customer guarantee.

“We responded to Woolworths on May 22 with more questions and after several promptings, Woolworths agreed to meet with us on August 6.”

The produce was sent for tests at a SA National Accreditation System-accredited lab: no pesticide residues were found on the organic sweet potatoes but low levels of four pesticides were found on the organic spinach samples.

Three of those are allowed for use in organic farming but one Fluopyram is a “highly persistent phenylamide fungicide” which is not allowed and usually found on berries, fruit and tomatoes - not spinach. Made by Bayer (which produces Roundup), Fluopyram is used on mildews and considered hazardous to aquatic environments.

Woolworths questioned the result and initially suggested it might have been caused by “contamination drift from a nearby field or during harvesting and processing”. It sent the product for its own tests, which apparently showed nothing - then samples were sent for a further test. Woolworths committed to sharing the results with Topic, but didn’t, says the group.

Instead, the retailer pulled the organic baby spinach from its fridges.

Contacted for comment, Woolworths re-sent its earlier statement:

“Quality and food safety is of critical importance to Woolworths and we take all issues regarding the production of our food extremely seriously. As a result, we have been engaging with Topic over the past six months on the issue of our organic baby spinach.

“Topic sent samples of our organic baby spinach to a lab for testing and consequently questioned the organic certification of the product. We have engaged with the independent certifier BCS Kiwa regarding the issue of their certification process and the expiry date of the organic certificate.

“Following further engagement with Topic, including two separate meetings, we have had further independent pesticide residue testing of our organic baby spinach done.

“We are not satisfied with the results that we have received and have consequently stopped production of our organic baby spinach. We have been transparent throughout this process with Topic and appreciate the issues they raised with us.”

Topic SA’s Peter Becker denies there was close co-operation: “At first, they responded, then it turned out to downright nothingness. Their own tests showed nothing - not even the allowable pesticides. They redid the test, but then all communications ceased.”

Asked what they were doing to tighten up processes to ensure it doesn’t happen again, which is critical for restoring confidence in such claims, Woolworths said: “Food safety is of paramount importance to Woolworths and we take all issues regarding the production of our food seriously.

“Woolworths has a team of food scientists and technologists who pro- actively manage food safety, in addition to our independent food safety testing and auditing, to prevent possible contamination of food.

“We have very strict protocols in place as part of our standard food safety management process. To verify the safety of our food products, we implement additional monitoring where we independently have our food products tested randomly.”

On Thursday, Becker made a Promotion of Access to Information Act application to force the retailer to reveal those results because Topic believes Woolworths has an obligation to reveal the levels of pesticide residue to consumers - some of whom might have had reactions.

“This means we can only speculate as to what was found in the test results. We don’t know if the tests confirmed the presence of Fluopyram, or if their results were even worse and detected additional pesticide residues at unacceptable levels. This raises more questions than it answers, such as what chemicals were actually found in the product, what the certifiers missed in their farm inspection and how much trust should be placed in the Kiwa BCS certificates used by Woolworths.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.