Non-certified organic sales allowed in some provinces

In its first state of the industry report, Canada’s Organic Trade Association has said that organic regulations across the country are inconsistent and a number of provinces “do not have any regulation at all.”

What that means is that locally produced organic food in certain provinces can be promoted and sold locally as “organic,” even though the farmer hasn’t been certified as an organic producer.  

Those provinces include Saskatchewan, Ontario, Alberta, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

“If you grow, whatever it is, in Saskatchewan and you’re selling it within Saskatchewan, you don’t have to be certified organic to call it organic,” said Marla Carlson, executive director of Sask Organics, a farmer led organization.

So, for instance, organic beef or organic chicken raised in Saskatchewan could be sold at a farmers market in Saskatoon, but there are no provincial regulations or enforcement to ensure that it is actually organic.

The lack of regulation, or gap, applies only to organic food produced and sold within a province.

“The minute you sell it past a border, provincial or international border, then you have to have the certification,” Carlson said.

The COTA report, released Monday morning in Ottawa, said Canada has a patchwork of organic regulations. Manitoba, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have adopted national standards for organic production. Those provinces and Quebec do require that organic food produced and sold within a province be certified.

“The remainder of the provinces and territories do not have any regulation at all,” the report said.

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“This leaves significant gaps as provinces and territories without regulations cannot enforce or regulate intra-provincial/territorial organic claims…. The regulatory framework across Canada is a patchwork ranging from non-existent to rigorous.”

The report singled out Ontario for a lack of regulations because it is the largest market for organic food in Canada.

Canada does have national standards for organic production, but the federal rules have limitations.

“The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) only has jurisdiction for products that are sold inter-provincially and internationally. It has no jurisdiction over intra-provincial sales,” said Stuart McMillan, an organic inspector from Manitoba.

“So for products sold that are only produced and only sold, say within Ontario … there’s no requirement for you if you’re sitting at the farmers market (or) selling at your farmgate, to actually be federally certified, which is pretty freaking bizarre…. This is a ridiculous gap.”

The Manitoba government addressed the regulatory gap in 2013 when it passed the Organic Agricultural Products Act and adopted federal rules.

“It said, ‘hey, within the province of Manitoba … if you use the O word, get certified,’ ” McMillan said.

“If you want to call yourself local, sustainable or whatever, go do it, but if you’re going to claim organic, get certified to the federal standard.”

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Only a few farmers in Canada may be taking advantage of the regulatory gap, but without regulations or enforcement, in certain provinces it’s impossible to know how frequently it happens at farmers markets or in direct farmgate sales to consumers.

McMillan said the rules are different if a farmer sells organic products to a retailer or third party.

“If there is any reasonable likely chance that product moves outside Ontario, then yes, it must be certified,” he said.

The COTA report covered much more than inconsistent regulations. The document also said governments should invest more in organic data collection because the industry needs reliable data to make informed decisions.

If consumers are unsure if a organic claim is valid, one option is to look for the Canada Organic logo.

The CFIA regulates the use of the organic logo. It’s use is only allowed on products that have been certified to meet organic production standards.

Any company or product that uses the logo, or says that it’s certified by a CFIA-approved certification body, can have its organic claim tested and enforced.

The full report is available, in PDF format, here.

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Contact robert.arnason@producer.com