Defining Moment: Canadian Organic Regs Are Coming
By George C. Myles
Though organic foods in Canada represent only 1 percent of total food sales, U.S. organic exporters are onto a good thing. Thus far, they have snagged almost 90 percent of the import market for organic foods sold in Canadian stores, consisting mostly of fresh and processed produce.
With an already solid market share, they expect a significant increase in sales when new voluntary organic foods standards being developed by the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) are introduced.
Getting to this point has not been easy. Originally slated for 1998 implementation, the Canadian government organics initiative bogged down due to a lack of industry support. Following hearings in the spring of 1996, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food recommended that any decision to establish Federal organic regulations hinge on the organics industry adopting a unified position.
Following this setback, the CGSB consulted with existing organics organizations, provincial authorities and other interested parties, and crafted a new set of what will be voluntary standards. Pending overall industry acceptance, the new rules will be presented to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) within a few months.
After the voluntary standards are generally accepted and the industry signals that it supports the development of federal regulations, the CFIA will begin the Canadian regulation proposal process. This procedure follows a pattern similar to that of the United States--publication in the official Canada Gazette followed by solicitation of public comments.
CFIA will likely be responsible for designating accreditation bodies and auditing and enforcing the regulations.
Plans also include the establishment of a national accreditation agency called the Canadian Organic Advisory Board. The new standards will introduce a "certified organic" trademark or logo and reduce confusion surrounding organic foods.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Canada's official agricultural department, expects that the U.S. and Canadian systems will be similar, but not identical to those being developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
They will contain specific and generic requirements for organic production and have lists of permitted materials. Detailed methods will enable producers and processors to fulfill the requirement for auditable organic production processes.
What's Organic, Anyway?
Until now, 42 organic food organizations, each with its own set of standards, have governed what constitutes organic food in most of Canada. British Columbia has been the only province with a standards and accreditation policy; only Quebec is in the process of developing regulations.
Due in part to the diffuseness of the term organic, the Canadian market has been limited to independently owned health/natural food stores and a few grocery chains that integrate organic food into conventional food displays.
These small, independent organic food retailers, common in Canada's larger towns, offer a wide range of organic foods such as bulk grains, flour, dried fruit and nuts, packaged bakery goods, grocery products, dairy products and fresh produce.
The larger chain stores import U.S. organic foods directly from U.S. suppliers. Smaller retailers depend on natural food distributors or mainstream grocery product distributors whose conventional packaged products fit the organic niche.
Despite the lack of national uniform standards, certain practices must currently be observed. For example, when a product is labeled organic, the label should indicate the name or number of the certifying body that carried out the certification process.
What About Pesticides and GMO's?
Curiously, the term organic is not synonymous with such terms as pesticide- free or no pesticides. Organic describes products that result from organic farming, a system of farming that creates ecosystems designed to achieve sustainable productivity.
The claim no pesticide is not considered appropriate, since there may be a carryover of pesticides applied prior to the certification period, or spray drift from neighboring fields. Furthermore, a limited number of pesticides are approved for use in organic production.
Under the new voluntary standards, it is unlikely that genetically modified organisms (GMO's) will be allowed to be designated organic, since private organic organizations and provincial authorities do not currently provide for it.
The Canadian organics industry has shown resistance to allowing organic status for GMO products. It dislikes the idea because, once approved by Canadian regulators, GMO varieties of a species are considered the same--they do not have to be labeled. Some members of the Canadian organics industry indicate they might approve an organic GMO product, but only if labeled. However, this issue remains controversial in the organics sector.
Canadians Export Organic Grains
Canadian organic food production comes mainly in the grain, oilseed and horticultural sectors. With no official government records, AAFC estimates this organic grain and oilseed production at less than 0.5 percent. Fruit, vegetable and herb production represents about 1 percent of this amount. Canada's organic exports consist primarily of grains going to the United States and Europe. After the introduction of national standards, these Canadian exports are also expected to increase.
More Information About New Rules
Canadian labeling requirements are detailed in Guide to Food Labeling, available from AAFC's homepage-- http://www.agr.ca .
For information regarding certification standards, names or numbers of independent certification bodies or other information on organic products, contact:
Canadian Organic Advisory Board
c/o L. Lenhardt
Tel.: (705) 324-2709
Fax: (705) 324-4829
USDA Proposed Rule Moves Forward
Mandated by the 1990 Farm Bill to develop national organic standards and appropriate regulations to ensure consistency in products labeled as organic, USDA has drafted a Proposed Rule based on recommendations from the 14-member National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). These recommendations were developed from extensive public input.
The Proposed Rule will appear in the Federal Register following approval by the Office of Management and Budget. A public comment period, followed by revisions and response, will result in eventual publication of a Final Rule. Implementation will begin with the first round of certifier accreditations conducted by USDA.
With implementation, a long-awaited, consistent national standard for organic production will be legally adopted.
Areas expected to be included in the National Organic Program are:
The author is an agricultural specialist with FAS' Office of Agricultural Affairs, Ottawa, Canada. Tel.: (1-613) 238-5335, ext. 267; Fax: (1-613) 233-8511; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.