Hay exporters remain concerned after China’s quarantine authorities, in recent weeks, once again stopped shipments of U.S. alfalfa due to the detection of genetically modified organism (GMO) traits, according to a USDA spokesperson.

Last year, a Washington state grower’s alfalfa was also rejected for export after it tested positive for containing a GMO trait that shouldn’t have been there (see, “Alfalfa Rejected For Export As GMO Contaminated”).

China requires all imported hay to be GMO-free. But current testing requirements don’t seem to provide enough assurances that the Roundup Ready trait is not present in shipments. The Chinese appear ready to implement more stringent testing thresholds to keep GMO contamination out of its imported alfalfa supply, says the USDA representative, who declined to be identified.

“We understand that China has recently increased the frequency of its GE (genetically engineered) testing and has a zero tolerance for unapproved biotech traits,” confirms the USDA official.

According to the spokesperson, the federal agency has been working with Chinese authorities and the U.S. alfalfa industry to gather information and come to an agreement.

Many industry officials are frustrated by the lack of information and the slow progress related to changing GMO testing sensitivity in hay, says Harry Kreeft, plant pathologist and nematologist with Western Laboratories in Parma, ID.

“Right now, everybody is absolutely grabbing at the dark,” explains Kreeft, who conducts GMO and other testing for the ag industry. “We don’t get any information from the USDA. We don’t get any information from the Chinese side. Our customers have no clue what’s going on.”

There are indications that the current 5% GMO contamination threshold is no longer acceptable to China, Kreeft says. The threshold may be tightened to 0.2%, and exporters and testing laboratories are scrambling to meet the expected new standard, he notes. “But nothing is set in stone yet. It all could change. That’s what’s frustrating.”

The 0.2% standard would be a good compromise that U.S. exporters should have no difficulty meeting, Kreeft believes. But lowering the threshold below that would be too stringent to serve China or U.S. exporters well, he adds.

“The Chinese want to have a certain confidence of the hay being GMO-free,” he says. “You can make tests as sensitive as you want, but you have to be realistic. Plus the Chinese also know they need the hay.”

As exporters continue the waiting game, Kreeft has told his customers to contact him as soon as they receive anything in writing from USDA or Chinese authorities.

“As soon as I know what they’re looking for, then we can take the next step and set up for 0.2%. But right now, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen,” he says. “We just need the Chinese authorities to make up their minds about what they want.”