The media firestorm caused by Earls Kitchen + Bar’s pursuit of the “Certified Humane” standard has quickly become a cautionary tale for both the farm and food industry.
It’s a situation a coalition of Ontario farm organizations are hoping to avoid by working with the food and beverage sector to help clarify and streamline sustainability initiatives. Earlier this week, Ontario’s Sustainable Farm and Food Coalition Steering Committee announced it’s beginning consultations to create assessment equivalency and harmonize verification among the many sustainability codes and standards throughout the farm and food value chain.
The initial phase of the consultation process is focused in Ontario, but there is interest in having a national conversation around sustainability and standards in the farm and food sector, says committee chair Gord Surgeoner. He notes that demand for some form of verification of sustainability practices has escalated significantly as grocery retailers and restaurants such as Earls look to differentiate themselves by offering everything from organic produce to certified humane beef.
“Basically what we’re trying to prevent is a plethora of one-offs where farmers and food processors have to fill out different plans for a whole bunch of different customers,” explains Surgeoner in this interview.
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“We’re trying to build on a system that has already worked for primary agriculture,” says Surgeoner. “We’re working with food processors because they are in the same situation. They’re being asked ‘are you sustainable?… Is your raw product produced sustainably?’”
In Ontario, Surgeoner says it’s important to build on the success of programs like the Environmental Farm Plan, which have been completed by 38,000 farm families. He notes that a the recent gap analysis of 10 environmental and business management programs, conducted for the committee, found that 83% of the questions asked by each program were the same.
“Let’s build on that rather than have to start from scratch for each different customer. We want one standard package and then if add-ons like specific humane treatment or no antibiotics (are required) – that’s a one-off deal for example with Earls,” explains Surgeoner.
The coalition recently hired Synthesis Agri-Food Network as project manager for the initiative. Synthesis will collaborate with food industry veteran David Smith of Orion Global Business Sustainability Consultants. Producers, processors, retailers, food service, non-governmental organizations and consumer groups will be contacted during the consultation phase, which will take 12 to 18 months.