Organic inspectors slam system

People charged with policing Canada’s organic industry say the system

is deeply flawed.

Mischa Popoff, a Manitoba-based inspector, said he has seen cases such

as a grower with jugs of Roundup and a backpack sprayer on his property

get certified, and a large organic flax shipment approved for export

even though the farmer couldn’t prove where he bought the flax, which

he blended and resold as organically grown.

Duane Phillippi, another independent inspector who works out of Regina,

cites an instance where a grower was declined certification by one

agency for numerous violations only to be certified a few weeks later

by another organization.

The inspectors say Canada’s system is too lax and there is no incentive

to weed out cheaters. They say while the vast majority of growers play

by the rules and are in the business for philosophical reasons as well

as monetary rewards, the small percentage of alleged cheaters could

potentially spoil the market for all of Canada’s organic industry.

The inspectors said as worrisome as outright cheats in the industry

are, a larger group of growers – those who are not as diligent as they

should be – could pose an even greater threat because the certification

system allows them wriggle room. Agencies that collect annual

certification fees don’t have a big incentive to crack down on those

growers, they said.

The fallout has consumers paying big premiums for organic food that

might not be as chemical or fertilizer free as they think.

Certification bodies agree that there is room for improvement and that

in the past, the system has been “loosey goosey,” but insist that it is

rapidly changing as more agencies become ISO Guide 65 compliant or are

accredited through programs such as those offered by the Standards

Council of Canada and the United States National Organic Program, or

NOP.

“Everything is coming to a head in North America,” said Wally Hamm, a

principal of OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada Inc., one of the largest

certification bodies in the country.

He said if you go back two years, the criticisms of the inspectors are

valid, but these days there are stricter standards and tougher laws.

However, out of about 50 certification bodies operating in Canada, some

are still “very, very slack,” said Hamm.

Agencies that are ISO Guide 65 compliant offer consumers at least a 95

percent assurance that they are protected because they must follow

stringent guidelines, said Hamm.

But Popoff, an inspector who has completed more than 500 audits, said

agencies pay only lip service to some of those guidelines.

He said the certification system relies almost entirely on pre-arranged

annual audits where farmers know at least one week in advance when an

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inspector will be showing up on their doorstep, which gives them time

to clean up any violations such as chemical containers.

The three-hour annual inspection revolves almost entirely around a

paper audit, relying on documents such as signed affidavits and field

histories as proof that the farmer is truly organic.

“It’s based on trust,” said Popoff, who has been employed as an

inspector since 1999.

There are visual inspections of fields and verbal interviews with

producers, but if oddities pop up it is hard to do anything about them

because the paper audit is the real focus for the certification bodies

who hire the independent inspectors, said Popoff.

He would like to see a system that employs random, surprise audits and

sampling of plants to test for chemical residues because there is no

residue testing in the industry now and few if any surprise audits.

“It would really smarten up the industry,” he said.

Phillippi is convinced there are organic growers who are hand-spraying

crops. Residue testing would help catch those cheats.

“It would bring a lot more credibility to the industry if there was

some safeguard that a minimal, maybe five to 10 percent, of the people

did get residue testing.”

But he doesn’t think it should be a mandatory part of the inspection

process because it would add too many costs to the system.

Phillippi also agrees with Popoff that there should be more random

audits but only on growers who raised some red flags during the

pre-arranged annual audits.

He also feels that growers who fail one certification process shouldn’t

be passing a different one a few weeks later.

“Once again it comes back to these standards have to be stricter and

unilateral.”

Hamm said audits are pre-arranged because there is a requirement to

have the operator present for the inspection. But he said ISO Guide 65

accredited agencies are also supposed to do surprise audits on five

percent of their farmer clients.

On the issue of residue testing he acknowledges the inspectors’

complaints are valid.

“I would agree that there is more residue testing needed in the organic

industry.”

But Hamm points out that good inspectors should be “forensic

agrologists” who can detect cheats without a lab test.

“They know what to look for in a field. You cannot hide fertilizer and

pesticide use. It can’t be done,” he said.

He added while inspectors aren’t completing residue tests, importers

are. Hamm also said there is an emphasis on residue testing in the new

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NOP standards that his agency and a few others operating in Canada are

accredited to.

The system is rapidly changing.

“If this time next year OCPP/Pro is not doing more residue testing, if

we’re not living up to our policy of random audits we won’t have ISO

Guide 65.”

Debbie Miller, president of the Organic Crop Improvement Association,

or OCIA, one of the world’s largest certification organizations, said

surprise audits have become more commonplace among OCIA chapters this

year.

She said OCIA is reviewing annual applications earlier and more

thoroughly in hopes of catching potential problems before the

inspections.

And she said some of the things the inspectors witnessed are not proof

of wrongdoing.

“Just the fact that there’s a half-full can of Roundup there doesn’t

mean the fellow used it necessarily. And the presence of a sprayer

doesn’t mean the person has been spraying,” said Miller, who resides in

Lisieux, Sask.

But she does agree with inspectors that there is a lack of

standardization between certification bodies in Canada, which creates a

situation where a farmer who is declined by one group will be accepted

by another.

Miller said residue testing is rare in the industry, partially because

it can cost a few hundred dollars per farm.

Marysburg, Sask., organic farmer Ray Bauml knows where those costs will

end up and he is not pleased with the prospect of paying more money to

get inspected.

Farmers in his chapter of the OCIA already pay $480 each for their

annual inspection.

“In a way there’s a limit to how much you want to make the farmer dance

around. Because it’s going to get to a point where the farmer is going

to say, ‘this doesn’t pay.'”

But inspectors like Popoff say residue testing and surprise audits are

necessary because under the current process, consumers who pay extra

for a product like organic canola oil are really only buying “a bottle

full of philosophy.”

“You’re not paying for any guaranteed analysis that proves there is

less contamination or less herbicide residue in that product,” said

Popoff.

Phillippi agrees.

“The bottom line is how long do you want your organic industry to last.

If it’s going to keep on this pace, we’re going to lose our confidence

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out there from our consumers.”