CFIA Should Check Organic Fields

Canada’s new organic food standard fails to recognize the most basic rules of common sense. 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 an honour system the organic industry has relied on since 1973 will become entrenched in law.

Consumers concerned with integrity, purity, nutrition and sustain-ability would do better to establish their own direct buying relationships with organic farmers rather than rely on this legislation. Either that or just buy regular food.

The industry 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 already pay for organic certification. So, the fact is, surprise field testing would reduce costs while exponentially increasing the legitimacy of the organic industry.

Organic inspections are currently carried out with advance notification, and focus solely on reviewing the records of the person seeking certification, along with a perfunctory observation of some farm fields or areas of a processing facility. Agencies performing these inspections survive on revenue based on the number of farms and facilities they certify, and on the volume of organic product sold under their watch. This will continue to be the case after CFIA takes over.

In all other industries, the term “certified” guarantees consumers that a product was tested and, especially in the case of food safety, that a surprise field visit was paid to the party seeking certification. Not so in the organic sector. Rather than engender honesty or improvements to the quality of organic food, CFIA’s new organic standard will leave the door wide open to fraud and gross negligence here at home and abroad.

The result of such lax “certification” is that over 85 per cent of the certified organic food sold in Canada is imported. If you thought buying organic had anything to do with supporting local farmers, you now know the opposite to be the case.

While it’s not the job of CFIA to rectify a trade imbalance, it certainly is its job to apply meaningful rules that allow Canadian farmers to compete on a level playing field, and guarantee that consumers get what they pay for. CFIA’s Organic Office has missed the opportunity to protect those they were 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. That’s the course the organic industry has taken and on which CFIA will continue.

Somehow the simple act of dating and signing one’s records is believed to keep everyone in the organic industry honest. Though it might come as a surprise to civil servants in Ottawa, such records can all be faked. How dumb would someone have to be to reveal on paper that he cheated?

A simple unannounced field test would not only provide consumers with a guarantee, but would also alleviate the costly bureaucratic burden currently placed on honest organic farmers. It’s time for Ottawa and everyone who lobbied for this new organic standard to explain why there will be no field testing.

Canada’s new organic standard makes as much sense as passing a law that says it’s against the law to break the law. Canadians deserve better.

Disclosure: I’m qualified to collect field samples for testing and have been paid by organic farmers to get their crops tested.

Mischa Popoff, from Osoyoos, B. C., runs a not-for-profit organic testing service called Is it Organic? Visit his website at www.isitorganic.caor call 250-809-2914.

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