Food labeled and sold as organic often isn’t
In an article entitled “Canada’s Organic Nightmare” put out by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, authors Mischa Popoff and Patrick Moore contend that many foods labeled as USDA organic may not actually be up to that standard because there is a lack of field testing in Canada, and, furthermore, free trade agreements allow the importation of such foods into the US. There are also “organic equivalency” agreements with other countries that allow imported organic food to be considered as equivalent to that grown in Canada. Popoff and Moore contend that organic crops and livestock are not tested in Canada before they are certified thus making certification essentially meaningless. Inspections consist of checking out the records at organic farms to see if the paperwork is in order, but the actual products are not tested making it more likely that the records could be falsified.
US standards for organic certification do call for field testing of crops and livestock to make sure that they do not exceed well-defined limits of pesticides and herbicides. On both sides of the border GMOs are prohibited in order to qualify for the organic label. While the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) goes to great lengths to make sure that regular supermarket non-organic food is safe and conforms to all labeling claims, pulling food from store shelves and inspecting it before it leaves the farm, organic foods are not so rigorously tested. Mischoff and Popoff claim that the lack of organic food field testing is the result of lobbying efforts by the global environmental movement, but perhaps corporate farmers wishing to enter the lucrative organic market are the real culprits here. They make the point that regular supermarket food should not be criticized as containing undesirable chemicals if organic foods have to rely, more or less, on farmers’ vouching for the purity of their products.
I’m not so sure that this logic holds. If Canadian organic products (which have been found to contain herbicides and pesticides) cannot be completely trusted, it does not follow that people should trust supermarket foods not to cause harm. What should happen is that Canadians should demand rigorous field testing of their organic products just as they test other products in the food chain to ensure that Canadians (and citizens of other countries they export to) are getting certifiable organic products. The US should demand the same before they accept imported Canadian products and give them the USDA organic label.
According to the CFIA’s definition of organic foods, there is no mention of safety, purity, nutrition or sustainability criteria that are all readily and inexpensively verifiable through basic lab testing. Instead, “organic product” in Canada is legally defined as product “that has been certified as organic.” According to the CFIA’s own regulations, organic food can only be decertified if it’s pesticide level does not even meet the limits imposed for non-organic foods. The authors contend that Canada will become a backdoor for the importation of non-organic food under the organic label since large corporations realize that there is a lot of money to be made in this high end market, and there is even more money to be made if organic standards are allowed to be debauched.
Why does Canada allow such haphazard and potentially dangerous practices to continue? The authors claim that organic farmers want organic certification so they can claim their foods are organic and, therefore, charge more for their products without having the scientific scrutiny that would actually prove that their products truly meet organic standards. And there is money involved since the private CFIA certifiers are paid by the farmers themselves as they are in the US. So the farmers get what they want – lax standards – and the CFIA certifiers get what they want – a lucrative profession. There likely is collusion between the two entities amounting quite possibly to the level of fraud.
The organic industry in Canada is a $2 billion a year industry. It is sufficiently mature that it could support a better testing standard which would not be prohibitively expensive. The Canadian standard continues to put more emphasis on bureaucratic paperwork than on scientific analysis and this is the way the big players in the organic industry want it. They can reliably fill out the paperwork at little cost to themselves. Growing truly organic food products would not only be an inconvenience to them but might possibly detract from the bottom line. This is a problem not only in Canada but also in the US where big corporations entering the organic industry seek to lower organic standards in order to cut costs.
Under the same lax regulations Canada doles out the “certifiably organic” label to other countries for use on their imports into Canada. So Canadians are faced with the prospect of consuming foods that originated in other countries having the Canadian organic label and consuming them as if they were grown in Canada. This back door into Canada also permits these products to be reimported into the US as if they were Canadian certifiable organic products.
The Canadian Organic Trade Association shot back at Popoff’s and Moore’s study:
“This article covers a report that is an untruthful and indefensible indictment of Canada’s organic farmers and business people, who take great pride in providing consumers with a complete seed-to-fork system premised on integrity, traceability and transparency.
Canada’s organic food system must meet all food safety and regulatory requirements, including random testing for chemical residue. Testing is, and always has been, one of the many enforcement and inspection mechanisms available during surprise spot-checks or when an inspector determines that testing is merited. Organic farmers and processors undergo mandatory annual third-party audits and site inspections.
“The authors of the Frontier Centre report are well-established opponents of organic, vocal in their support of GMOs, who have produced a heavily biased document. We are shocked by the media attention this has received, which is obviously intended to generate controversy where none exists.
“Organic products have been proven through numerous peer-reviewed studies to contain significantly less pesticides and pesticide residues, in an environment already contaminated from years of toxic pollution. Organic farmers and businesses are working hard to reverse this trend and to create an alternative system to conventional agriculture. GMOs, artificial preservatives and colouring are not allowed in organic production.”
However, they don’t claim that regular field testing is required, but is at the discretion of the certifier. Their statement that organic products have proven to contain “significantly less pesticides” suggests that they still might not be up to organic standards, just that they have less pesticides than regular supermarket foods. They also suggest that, while they are doing the best they can, the environment has been “already contaminated from years of toxic pollution.” However, this seems like more of an excuse or a rationale for not meeting organic standards. It’s an organic farmer’s and certifier’s responsibility to ensure that foods labeled organic in fact are up to organic standards not just that the farmer has tried hard to meet those standards.
In addition to testing for the presence of pesticides and herbicides organic products should be tested for the pres ence of pathogens which would crop up if manure, for example, were to be improperly composted. This is not even on the organic industry’s radar yet and explains why even some products labeled “organic” in the US have contained e coli and other pathogens and have caused health problems among consumers.
Suffice it to say that standards for organic foods are mind bogglingly lax, especially in Canada. Since Canada has a free trade agreement with the US for the importation of organic foods, these foods from Canada and imports into Canada from other countries can wind up on US store shelves labeled organic. While consumers pay a premium for organic foods, are they really getting what they pay for? God only knows. Standards need to be upgraded in both Canada and the US. The incentive for collusion between farmers and certifiers needs to be eliminated, and field testing needs to be rigorously enforced or, in the case of Canada, instituted.
John Lawrence is a regular contributor to the San Diego Free Press. You can also read more of his work at his own site, Will Blog for Food.
Let’s not forget one could label hemlock as natural and organic, and without some preservatives bread has a shelf life of a few days.
In the pursuit of purely organic status I’m afraid to say one is liable to expose themselves to a lot worse dangers than some of the things that preclude such labeling.
Somewhere in the middle is common sense.
(never mind in today’s economy and the premium prices commanded for many organic foods we could starve ourselves adhering to such absolutes)
John Lawrence says
One correction – in the second paragraph I state, “Mischoff and Popoff claim that the lack of organic food field testing is the result of lobbying efforts …” I meant to say, “Moore and Popoff …”
Frank Gormlie says
John, we reposted your article at the OB Rag; could you also make the same comment there?