Efforts intensify in Ontario to regulate organic products

In Ontario, a product or business does not need to be certified to use the word 'organic' as a descriptor, provided it isn't traded across provincial boundaries and/or doesn't tote the Canada Organic Logo. MPPs Tabuns and Jones are looking to change that. (Photo: Organic Council of Ontario)

Recent efforts to address consumer questions and confusion over certified organic food production have taken a step forward in Ontario.

On Wednesday, MPPs Peter Tabuns and Sylvia Jones announced a co-sponsored private member’s bill for organic products regulation in Ontario.

“This bill will provide further transparency and help ensure that the growing organic industry continues to enjoy consumer confidence,” says Jones, who along with Tabuns has been working with the Organic Council of Ontario to develop the bill, based on Manitoba’s Organic Agricultural Products Act.

“I am looking forward to this bill starting a dialogue with farmers and other stakeholders about how Ontario can align itself with the regulations adopted in five other provinces and at the federal level.”

Jones has some street cred in agriculture. Her riding represents Caledon, which includes some of the province’s near-urban farms (including major non-organic operations such as Sunnymead Farms).

She and Tabuns says they want consumers to know they’re actually getting what they pay for when they buy organic. As well, they say they want to make sure that farmers and processors who invest in building an organic business are getting the most out of their investment.

According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, certified organic farms account for roughly 1.8% of the total number of farms in the country. (Photo: Organic Council of Ontario)

Here’s the situation, as explained by the council.

In this country, organic production is guided by the Canada Organic Regime, created in 2009. It provides guidelines to the organic sector about what is, and what isn’t, certified organic, and how to produce it.

The regime offers a legal definition for “organic,” and a certification system for organic products that cross provincial and national borders. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says the regime is designed to “regulate all parties involved in the certification of agricultural organic products and to verify all applicable regulatory requirements, standards and guidance documents are being met.”

Now, the regime doesn’t cover claims within provinces. In Ontario, it is only enforced for products that carry the Canada Organic Logo and those that are exported outside of Ontario.

Four provinces (Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Manitoba) have regulated the term ‘organic’, and British Columbia is expected to have it regulated by 2018. (Photo: Organic Council of Ontario)

The Organic Council of Ontario worries, understandably, that without regulation and enforcement, unscrupulous producers might call their products organic when they’re not. The industry — or any industry, for that matter — looks bad when consumers get duped. Politicians like Jones and Tabuns are in office to help see that doesn’t happen in Ontario.

It’s a particularly pressing matter in Ontario, where consumer demand for organic products is the largest in Canada. The council has been pushing for change throughout the late summer.

“Provincial regulation would protect businesses that already certify, and provide an opportunity for Ontario to support increased production so we can meet more of that demand right here at home,” says organic farmer Tom Manley, council president.

A complicating factor though is that some producers — particularly small ones — simply don’t want to go to the trouble of certifying their crops or livestock. They think it’s an administrative pain, busywork, or unnecessary for their customers.

It doesn’t mean they’re being deceitful. Rather, like many farmers, they’re fed up with third-party intervention in their operations.

According to information from Quebec-based organic giant duBreton, a recent survey showed almost one-third of Canadians either know nothing about or are confused by organic meat. (Photo: Organic Council of Ontario)

The council thinks the answer is somewhere in the middle, between no certification, and onerous regulations. Options could include tailored certification programs for small-scale farmers making organic claims, and financial supports that would help them do so.

Or maybe small-scale farms that don’t want to certify need not pursue the claim, it says, because they have direct relationships with their customers. It would still be a buyer-beware situation, but on a very personal scale where misrepresentation is probably less likely.

“We know there are many honest, hard-working organic farmers in Ontario who don’t certify. This bill is meant to be the start of a dialogue that leads to a made-in-Ontario solution,” says the council’s executive director Carolyn Young. “This would include adopting the federal standards, but also exploring more options for small-scale.”

Confusion over organic products is hardly limited to Ontario, or to fruit and vegetables that are widely associated with organic production. For example, according to information from Quebec-based organic giant duBreton, a recent survey showed almost one-third of Canadians either know nothing about or are confused by organic meat. As well, more than 40 per cent are frustrated by the lack of organic meat options in grocery stores.

All this is very timely. In Canada, National Organic Week is September 16-24. Crops are being harvested and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. It’s a great opportunity for a discussion about all food production, organic or not.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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