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Ontario’s organic farmers want labelling loophole closed

Apples and celeriac photographed at a farmers’ market in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Organic farmers in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to close what they describe as a loophole in oversight, saying it is leading to widespread misuse of the term "organic" across the province.

Late last month, the Organic Council of Ontario wrote to Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal, asking the province to create rules surrounding the term organic. Currently, federal rules for organic, set out in the Canada Food Inspection Agency's Organic Products Regulations, apply only to food that is imported, traded across provinces or that bears the Canada Organic logo.

As a result, products that are grown and sold without crossing provincial borders – that do not bear the Canada Organic logo or any other certified organic logo – are not subject to these rules. Several provinces – Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Manitoba – have created regulations to fill this gap, with enforcement activities funded in some cases by the industry itself. British Columbia, too, is set to unveil new rules in 2018. But Ontario has yet to follow suit.

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"As long as a product is staying within Ontario, it is a provincial concern, and Ontario does not have a regulation that protects or defines or regulates the term organic," said OCO president Tom Manley. "So in Ontario, any Tom, Dick or Harry – as long as they don't use the logo – can make an organic claim without anyone saying boo."

For the most part, major retailers require organic producers to subscribe to certification programs, which are accredited by the CFIA and include some level of third-party oversight.

But Mr. Manley said that many smaller businesses – especially farmer's markets and those that sell directly to restaurants – use the term organic anyway, and without certification or oversight.

A statement from Mr. Leal did not directly address the OCO's request, saying only that he "appreciates their feedback," and will continue to engage with the group. His statement also made clear that he sees organic regulation as a federal matter. "The federal Canadian Food and Inspection Agency is responsible for monitoring and enforcing organic product regulations," he wrote. "If staff from my ministry receive a complaint about false labelling, they promptly refer the matter to the CFIA."

The CFIA, meanwhile, disputed the OCO's assessment. A spokesperson for the CFIA said that all food products – including the ones the OCO say fall within the regulatory gap – are still subject to labelling laws, with regular inspections that protect against inaccurate and misleading packaging claims. But critics said these inspections, which are triggered in many cases by complaints, are few and far between.

"Is that being done? I have no idea," said Dave Lockman, a manager at Pro-Cert, an organic-certification company. But he said "there are some people which are representing their products as organic but not fully following organic standards. That's a guarantee."

The OCO's request comes amid heightened concerns around mislabelling of food products. Last month, Ontario poultry producer Cericola Farms, which supplied chicken to some of the country's largest retailers, was charged with fraud for allegedly misrepresenting its products as organic. And earlier this year, a CFIA investigation led to the conviction of a major Ontario produce company, Mucci Pac Ltd., for falsely labelling imported vegetables as Canadian.

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Still, Mr. Manley acknowledged that some of the reluctance to regulate within Ontario is coming from within the organic sector itself. New rules would also target smaller farmers who follow organic methods, but produce on such a small scale that they can't afford the time and resources required for certification.

In these situations, Mr. Manley said Ontario could follow the example of other provinces that provide funding to small-scale farmers in order to get certified.

Canadian Organic Growers president Rochelle Eisen said that having rules for Ontario, as Canada's largest province with a huge market for organic products, is especially important – and could have a cascade effect for the remaining provinces.

"I think each province, each organic community and each association wants regulation," she said. "It's just how to facilitate it and make it palatable for the powers to be to create more regulation at a time when people want less regulations."

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