Lack of accountability in Canada’s new organic standard

National Concerns

By Mischa Popoff:

Canada’s new organic standard will soon become law even though it fails to recognize the most basic rules of commonsense.

The Organic Office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) will not require annual field testing or surprise inspections when it takes over regulation of the organic industry on June 30. Instead, a simplistic honour system devised in 1973 will become entrenched in law. The CFIA attempted to introduce surprise testing, but sometime during the transition between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin’s administrations (2003/2004) the industry succeeded in cutting it.

In all other industries, the term “certified” guarantees a product was tested and that a surprise field visit was paid to the party seeking certification. Not so in the organic sector. Rather than promote honesty and engender improvement, the door will be left wide open to fraud and gross negligence.

The result of such lax “certification” is that over 85% of the certified organic food, beer and wine sold in Canada is imported based solely on the honour of the exporter. This dubious practice is about to be sanctioned under our government’s watch, and one could be forgiven for accusing the CFIA of failing to protect the people it’s supposed to be looking out for.

I grew up on an organic farm and worked for five years as an organic inspector. I’ve communicated with CFIA since 2002 on the pressing need to test organic farms and processing facilities on a surprise basis. Imagine running the Olympics without surprise testing for banned substances and instead asking athletes to fill out paperwork to “prove” they’re clean. It’s unthinkable.

The industry’s objection to surprise testing is that it will raise the price of organic food. But a multi-pesticide test costs less than $200, a mere fraction of what organic farmers and processors pay to be certified. So, surprise field testing will reduce costs while exponentially increasing legitimacy.

Organic certifying agencies generate revenue based on the number of farms and facilities they certify, and on the volume of organic product sold under their watch. So it’s no wonder they don’t want surprise testing. Worst of all, many individuals in the organic industry do double duty as certifiers and as brokers/traders. Such flagrant conflict of interest will continue unabated after CFIA takes over

Meanwhile, I’m qualified to collect field samples for testing and have in the past been paid by concerned organic farmers to get their crops tested. This has led some brokers/traders and certifiers in the industry to attack my integrity in the media, accusing me of being in a conflict of interest when I propose surprise organic testing. But, they too are in business, and have far more to gain from the complete laxity of the honour system that the CFIA is about to sanction.

Organic products are claimed to be purer, more nutritious, and better for the environment. All such claims could easily be verified scientifically through laboratory analysis; shouldn’t the organic brand live up to what’s advertised? Why should Canadians settle for less? The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program contains a provision that requires organic crops and food to contain no more than 5 percent of the limit for any toxicity allowed in regular food. In other words, Washington requires that organic food be at least 95 percent more pure than regular food. Sadly, this provision is not enforced by the American organic industry, but credit is nonetheless due to the civil servants who saw fit to write such a quantifiable provision into their standard. Clearly they recognized that honour is not enough, and that if something really matters you should be able to measure it. No such quantifiable provision exists in the Canadian standard.

Many organic farmers are worried about the complete lack of objectivity in Canada’s new organic standard which will force them to continue to compete with dubious organic imports. The obvious question is: How long will it be before Canadian consumers at large also grow concerned and blame their government?

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