It has been five years since Mischa Popoff went public with claims that Canada’s organic inspection system is deeply flawed.
Since then the industry has approved a new national standard and created a federal regulation paving the way for government to enforce that standard.
But according to Popoff, a former organic inspector, the same fundamental flaws remain, leaving consumers with little assurance that their premium-priced food is truly organic.
“There is nothing in there that protects us against flagrantly fraudulent, counterfeit product.”
At the heart of his concerns is the lack of established tolerance levels for fertilizer and pesticide residues and the absence of a requirement for laboratory testing of crops to see if farmers have been exceeding those levels.
Popoff said consumers incorrectly assume the organic food they eat has been subject to rigorous analysis. The existing system is largely honour- and paper-based, augmented by pre-arranged visual inspections.
“Even when we do the best job, we’re still getting duped back at the farm,” he said.
Debbie Miller, manager of OCIA Canada, one of the largest certification bodies in the country, said testing isn’t the panacea Popoff suggests.
“You could test something and find no pesticides in it but that doesn’t necessarily mean the product was produced organically,” she said.
The Canadian system is designed to certify the process rather than the product. Inspectors ensure products are handled properly, according to the guidelines set out in the national standard.
Miller said that involves random, unannounced inspections and the occasional test when there is a dispute with a farmer.
“There is always the potential for fraud and we’re doing all sorts of things to protect against that.”
She said comprehensive testing is impractical because of its expense. Consumers also must realize there are factors beyond a farmer’s control, such as measurable amounts of 2,4-D that can be found in rain water.
But Popoff said without testing, consumers are asked to take the farmer at his word. In his days as an inspector, he said he witnessed cheaters who still received their certification papers.
Popoff runs a private business called Polyphase Communication that provides testing services for the organic industry. He would like to see rules requiring the use of such services.
“Let’s put some teeth into what the process means beyond, ‘yeah, the farmer gave it his best shot,’ ” he said.
Ken Bruce, regulatory officer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency department responsible for overseeing the national regulation, said consumer groups were involved in the design of the new system and those groups ensured there are adequate protections in place.
“(CFIA inspectors) can take enforcement actions now on fraudulent labelling complaints.”
While Bruce acknowledged there are no tolerance levels or requirements for on-farm testing, there is a general principal enshrined in the Canadian standard calling for “the least possible residues at the lowest possible levels” and an elaborate certification system to ensure that happens.
Bruce has met with accreditation bodies that oversee the certifiers and he is convinced they have things under control.
The CFIA can inspect accreditation bodies and certifiers for compliance with federal regulations, conduct label reviews and test organic products destined for store shelves.
Popof said that isn’t enough: “They’re not going to get off their duff and go out there and inspect a farm.”