Canada’s organic food certification system ‘little more than an extortion racket,’ report says
Inside the enormous Whole Foods Market in Oakville, west of Toronto, a red and yellow streaked Honeycrisp is plucked from the top of an orchard’s worth of apples in wooden crates near the entrance.
A round sticker near its stem says: “Certified Organic.” At $7.68 a kilo, four of them cost $6.51. Firm, juicy and sufficiently tart, it’s a tasty apple, to be sure.
But what does that sticker mean?
It might mean a lot. And it might mean almost nothing.
As the popularity of organic food explodes in Canada, it has drawn new scrutiny that raises questions over its authenticity, meaning and value.
It is the authenticity of organic food labelling that forms the core of an excoriating report this month from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Canada’s legislated organic certification process is an invitation for fraud and abuse, the report argues, with consumers paying an often hefty premium for a designation that requires no proof.
In response to the organic industry’s growth, Canada enacted a labelling requirement: Since 2009, products making an organic claim must be certified by an agency accredited by the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
Not included in that process, however, is mandatory laboratory testing of products that could ensure organic-labelled food is actually farmed without pesticides, leaving the organics industry in the hands of the honour system.
“It amounts to little more than an extortion racket, one that the greediest of mafiosi would envy,” write Mischa Popoff and Patrick Moore in their report released this month by the Winnipeg-based, free-market-friendly think-tank.
The organic certification industry’s “dirty little secret,” they write, is that “organic crops and livestock are not tested in Canada before they are certified, thus making organic certification essentially meaningless.”
The organics industry rejects that notion and defends the integrity of its members and the system.
“Organic farmers and processors undergo scrutiny with audits and inspections against Canada’s organic standards. The organic standards in Canada are very robust,” said Stephanie Wells, Senior Regulatory Affairs Advisor with the Canada Organic Trade Association.
The CFIA said organic products are subject to its regular chemical residue monitoring program, along with all other food products. The federal agency, itself, does not provide certification, but rather accredits private businesses to do it. Most are for-profit businesses.
“The greatest perversion lies in the fact that most CFIA-accredited organic certifiers also collect ‘royalties’ of between 1% and 3% on their clients’ gross revenue,” the Frontier Centre report says. “So, a certifier really has no incentive whatsoever to crack down on a client who might be breaking the rules.”
The CFIA-approved certifying agencies include companies abroad who can, in turn, bestow CFIA’s blessing onto Canadian producers, with little direct oversight. There are agencies providing CFIA-approved organic certification in Albania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, China, Colombia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and others places where environmental standards and business practices may not be as strict.
“The certification bodies are responsible for verifying that organic operators are producing organic products in accordance with Canada’s organic standard,” the CFIA said in a written response.
CFIA did not dispute that it relies largely on the honour system.
“Verification officers, employed by these certification bodies, conduct on-farm and facility inspections to ensure that organic producers are conducting their operations according to the Canadian Organic standard,” the agency said.
And problems have been found.
Organic crops and livestock are not tested in Canada before they are certified, thus making organic certification essentially meaningless
CFIA documents showed that the agency did internal spot tests last year and found that nearly 24% of the 178 organic apples they tested contained pesticide residue. The results were kept for internal discussion only until CBC News compelled their release through the Access to Information Act.
Ms. Wells says chemical pesticides found in organic food likely come from inadvertent environmental contamination, known as “drift.”
“We don’t have a problem with testing. We have a problem with too much testing,” she said, which could add a “horrific cost” for consumers.
The meaning of organic labels is also at issue.
Ben Campbell, an assistant professor with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and colleagues at Ontario’s Vineland Research and Innovation Centre study what consumers know — or think they know — about organic labels.
A large majority of those surveyed (83%) got an essential concept correct, that organic meant no synthetic pesticides used, but his study, about to be published in the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, also found large gaps in knowledge and a subset of consumers getting it completely wrong.
“There are a large number of consumers who have misperceptions of what organic means, attaching to it things that generally aren’t true,” Mr. Campbell said in an interview.
For instance, 29% said it also meant no natural pesticides were used, which is often not true; 17% said it meant the food was grown or produced locally, which is dramatically untrue. (More than half of all organic food purchased in Canada is imported.)
A certifier really has no incentive whatsoever to crack down on a client who might be breaking the rules
Consumers with the best understanding tended to be better educated, of Western European heritage, female and the primary shopper in the house. Consumers who shopped most at independent stores or farmers’ markets were most likely to get aspects wrong, attaching additional or untrue benefits to organics, the study found.
“This seems to indicate that as consumers invest themselves, whether through perceived knowledge or interest in foods, they gravitate to a more positive view of local and organic at the expense of conclusive scientific evidence,” the study says.
The study also showed only 52% of consumers relate organic as better for the environment; 34% believed organic tastes better; and 34% believed organic provides more nutrition.
Recent studies have also questioned the health value of organics.
A recent high-profile study by researchers at Stanford University in California found that, as a whole, organic products offered no more vitamins and nutrients than conventional products. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, analyzed the results of 240 previous studies.
“There wasn’t any strong evidence to support the idea that organic foods are significantly healthier,” Crystal Smith-Spangler, the study’s lead author, told reporters.
The analysis did find organic food was 30% less likely to contain trace levels of pesticides, with the researchers saying it was uncommon for any food in the U.S., organic or conventional, to have unsafe levels.
Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published advice to parents in the journal Pediatrics that feeding organic food to children should reduce their exposure to pesticides, but that organic food was not necessarily more nutritious than conventional food.
Ms. Wells said the Stanford study created a lot of negative buzz, but notes it did find organic food contained significantly lower levels of pesticides, showing the organic system, as a whole, was working.
But the Frontier Centre authors say that without proof, organic authenticity should be questioned. When large amounts of money are involved, they say, such things as honour systems and the like cannot be relied upon.
‘‘Should there not be,’’ they say, ‘‘at least a bit of scientific scrutiny in this premium-priced food market?”