Fake organic imports not seen as major problem in Canada

Bogus organic food could be entering the United States because of poor oversight, and the same may be happening in Canada.

In a report released in September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that authorities at American ports are failing to detect organic food imports that aren’t actually organic. (PDF format)

The report focused on procedural and protocol failings at U.S. ports of entry, but a representative of one of the largest organic certification bodies in North America said Canada also has challenges with phony organic imports.

“I think a lot of what you see in the USDA report is also of concern on the Canadian side,” said Byron Hamm, certification manager with Pro-Cert Organic, which has its headquarters in Saskatoon.

“From our discussions with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) … they’ve clearly shown to us that they are very concerned about this and they are following what’s happening in the U.S. right now, and they are looking at our systems.”

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, the author of the report, said the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees organic rules and regulations, isn’t doing enough to ensure the validity of organic food imports.

“The lack of controls at U.S. ports of entry increases the risk that non-organic products may be imported as organic into the United States,” the report said.

“(The) AMS was unable to provide reasonable assurance that … required documents were re-viewed at U.S. ports of entry to verify that imported agricultural products labelled as organic were from certified organic foreign farms.”

The USDA report confirms the findings of a Washington Post story from earlier this year. The Post reported on three fraudulent shipments of organic corn and soybeans that entered American ports.

One of the shiploads was 36 million pounds of soybeans that originated in Ukraine, was shipped through Turkey and arrived at port in Stockton, California.

The beans started the journey as conventional but earned an “organic” label during the trip, increasing the value of the shipment by $4 million, the Post said.

Imports of organic foods, particularly feedgrains, are common in North America because Canadian and America farmers haven’t been producing enough organic corn, soybeans and other grains for the organic livestock trade.

Organic feedgrains have received most of the attention since the Post story, but other organic commodities are not perfect, Hamm said.

“Whenever there is that differential (in price between organic and conventional) there is that potential for fraud.”

So when the price of organic flaxseed jumps to $42 a bushel, it’s awfully tempting for a grain handler or middleman to label regular flax as organic and pocket a $25 to $30 per bu. profit.

“Or things like goji berries,” Hamm said. “In organic, goji always raises a flag.”

Rochelle Eisen, Canadian Organic Growers president, is aware of concerns around imported feedgrains but she’s not convinced other organic products are dubious.

“Most of the imports that come into Canada, in fresh fruits and vegetables, are coming in from Mexico and South America,” she said. “Not (from) Eastern Europe where the problem is.”

A portion of the organic grains coming into North America is grown in places like Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine, which are routinely ranked as the most corrupt in Europe. However, it’s difficult to estimate the amount of organic grain coming into Canada from those countries.

Tia Loftsgard, Canadian Organic Trade Association executive director, said last year that the federal government doesn’t track organic imports so there isn’t information on volumes for products like feed-grains.

“We are lobbying for that to change,” she said.

One of weaknesses of the existing system is that Canada doesn’t require an organic import certificate, which is standard in Europe, Hamm said.

“That documents all product coming in through the government authorities,” he said.

“It’s basically putting into a database a record of all the product that’s coming in (that’s) identified as organic, and bringing some traceability to origin on it.”

Without an import certificate, it’s more difficult for organic certifying bodies in Canada to track an organic product back to the source.

Pro-Cert can ask an organic producer about his imported feed-grains, but the farmer may not have that information.

“My client may not have access to the supplier of (his) supplier,” he said. “It may go back three or four different hands, or across three or four different countries.”

People in the organic trade are troubled by fraudulent imports, but it’s not like all feedgrains coming into the country are suspect, Hamm said.

There are legitimate overseas suppliers of feedgrains that are fully organic.

“They are getting painted with this (broad brush).”

The legitimacy of organic imports may be in the news at the moment, but there will always be people who try to cheat the system, Eisen said.

She’s confident that governments and the organic industry will take the necessary steps to rein in the fraudsters.

“I know it’s going to get fixed,” she said. “Problems happen and the U.S. caught it…. I think most of the feed coming into Canada would be coming from the U.S. So if the U.S. cleans its house up, it will eliminate our problems.”

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