Whistleblower says he’s being punished

An organic “whistleblower” says he is being blackballed by the industry.

Independent organic inspector Mischa Popoff of Winnipeg said he can’t find work since he went public last summer with concerns about the integrity of the industry.

Last year, in an interview with The Western Producer, Popoff alleged that while he was working as an organic inspector, he witnessed acts of fraud that were overlooked by certification bodies.

He said the inspection system was too lax and that consumers are paying big premiums for food that may not be free of chemicals or fertilizer. His biggest complaint was the lack of random inspections and residue testing to catch cheats.

Certifiers countered that random on-farm testing is unnecessary, too expensive and less effective than what they call bioassay techniques, which Popoff calls visual inspection, now used by the industry.

Certifiers said residue testing is also redundant because organic food buyers, traders and government regulators routinely carry out random substance analyses.

And they pointed out that Popoff had a vested interest in coming forward with his claims because he was trying to establish his own residue testing service.

Shortly after the article was published, Popoff was kicked off a web forum operated by the Independent Organic Inspectors Association and was put on probation by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, one of the biggest organic certification bodies in the world.

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He has since been conditionally approved as an OCIA inspector but can’t find work with that organization and many others.

“I used to get more work offered to me than I needed. Now it looks like I have to consider another profession,” said Popoff.

“I’ve heard from people directly it’s because I besmirched the industry by doing the article. The messenger is being shot here.”

OCIA president Debbie Miller said that is not the case, at least with the chapter she operates. By the time she was approached by Popoff for work, she had already hired her inspectors for the season.

“I wasn’t shopping for an inspector,” said Miller, who added that she isn’t aware of any blackballing going on.

Popoff has heard from other chapters and agencies that his rates are too high or that his work is substandard. But said he had no trouble getting work before his Producer interview last August.

“There was a real change in their attitude towards me after the article came out.”

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He estimates he has completed more than 500 inspections since starting in the business in 1998. But this year he is looking at doing one quarter the number he usually does.

“I knew I was sticking my neck out with the media interviews last (summer), but I never dreamt it would be this bad,” said Popoff.

One company that isn’t hiring him this year and is “unlikely” to be hiring him down the road is the Organic Producers Association of Manitoba.

OPAM president Alex Scott said his group made the decision to halve the number of inspectors it uses for the sake of continuity. Popoff didn’t make the list.

“We reviewed all the inspectors and rated them and I guess he didn’t rate quite as high as some,” said Scott.

“He wasn’t the only person who didn’t get hired again this year, but he was one of the unfortunates.”

Scott said OPAM rated inspectors on qualifications such as years of experience and level of training, but it also looked for qualities like loyalty and integrity and that’s where Popoff’s public criticism of the industry might have hurt.

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“I don’t suppose it did him any good,” said Scott.