A former organic inspector says he is being punished for blowing the whistle on his industry.
Mischa Popoff received national media coverage for criticizing the organic sector for its overreliance on paperwork and lack of laboratory testing of its products.
Now he believes he is paying the price for going public about those shortcomings.
Three months ago Popoff applied to be reinstated as a member of the International Organic Inspectors Association, the leading North American inspector training body recognized by both the United States Department of Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
“I was thinking I might do some inspection work, even though I disagree with the principals of the system,” he said.
But Popoff received a letter June 2 from the association saying he no longer met the criteria for membership in a group he belonged to before speaking out.
Popoff said, “that’s crazy.” He has taken every course required of him and apprenticed four other inspectors for the association.
“I guess I don’t meet the criteria because I don’t have conduct you’d expect from an inspector, which is essentially to keep your mouth shut.”
Margaret Scoles, executive director of the IOIA, said the reasons behind the board’s decision not to renew Popoff’s membership were complex, but said it had a lot to do with Popoff’s “extremely public” positions.
“I think he believes he is promoting organic integrity but I think his approach to doing it actually elicits distrust of organics and questions whether organic is really organic and would lead consumers to believe that organic can’t be trusted. And I think that’s a really sad thing,” she said.
Scoles said Popoff makes it sound like the organic inspection process is meaningless unless accompanied by mandatory testing.
She said testing has its flaws as well. Some conventional product would be completely clean if tested. She noted there isn’t a test for all pesticide residues. For instance, the only way to detect if phostoxin has been used is to open up the grain bins and smell for a garlic odour.
Scoles said she can’t understand why a former inspector would undermine consumer confidence in the organic inspection system.
“We feel that his approach to the press has been not in the spirit of promoting organic integrity.”
Popoff will not be allowed to use the IOIA logo or the association’s name to indicate he is a member in good standing, but Scoles doesn’t have a problem with him listing his IOIA training on his e-mails and other correspondence.
Popoff said it is important for him to use the designation to add credibility to his Is it Organic? testing service and his consulting work, where he helps producers prepare for inspections.
But he can’t understand why he is being prevented from working as an inspector and participating in things like the IOIA’s internet forum, where inspectors chat with others on issues of the day and find out about jobs.
“The benefit of membership is that you’re on the inside and you hear all the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Popoff.
He said the association is opposed to testing and that the last thing it wants is anybody questioning what it does, which is why it is targeting him.
“I’m obviously persona non grata,” said Popoff.
Scoles said that’s not true. She thinks there is a place for residue testing in organic agriculture and that there eventually could be a place for Popoff in the association.
“I’m hoping that if we continue to dialogue, it will end up in a positive resolution.”