Organic sector wants certification crackdown

The USDA annually investigates hundreds of cases of organic fraud, while the CFIA “doesn’t seem to take action on any front,” says one organic producer. Photo: Thinkstock

By Robert Arnason
Glacier FarmMedia staff

Leaders in the organic agriculture sector are frustrated with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and its lack of action on organic fraud.

They say Canada has fallen behind the United States and other nations that are cracking down on fraudulent organic imports and cases of domestic fraud.

An organic producer, who asked not to be named because he didn’t have permission from the farm owners to speak with media, used blunt language to describe the lack of oversight.

“The CFIA doesn’t seem to take action on any front, when it comes to fraud,” he said. “They have been absolutely lethargic in doing anything when it comes to anything involving domestic fraud. Completely and utterly lethargic.”

Organic fraud became a hot topic a few years ago, when the Washington Post reported on a load of soybeans that originated in Ukraine, were shipped through Turkey and arrived at a port in California. The soybeans “magically” became organic while en route to the U.S., adding $4 million to the value of the shipment. The Post also reported on two similar cases of fake organic imports — corn and soybeans from Eastern Europe.

In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bolstered its oversight of organic agriculture. Annually, it now investigates hundreds of possible cases of organic fraud, inside and outside America.

It also publishes detailed reports on its activities, which can be found at the USDA website (opens as PDF).

The CFIA doesn’t seem to take action on any front, when it comes to fraud. They have been absolutely lethargic in doing anything… – (name withheld by request)

As of the end of 2019, it had 465 cases in progress and 487 closed cases.

“In 2019, 722 operations in 50 countries… lost their certification through suspension or revocation,” said the USDA.

The U.S. had the most cases where operators lost their certification, likely because the USDA was responding to complaints of domestic rule-breaking.

The American actions have adjusted the global flow of organic trade. Eastern Europe was a major source of organic feed grains, exporting to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

But that has changed.

USDA investigators studied organic grain production in three Black Sea nations and found a “concerning pattern of organic farms reporting yields that far exceed regional averages.”

In other words, those farms weren’t organic or they were buying grain from their conventional neighbours and labelling it as organic.

The USDA’s focus on Eastern Europe has made a difference.

“More than 275 operations have exited organic certification in the Black Sea region,” the USDA report said.

The department conducts such investigations because “protecting the integrity of the USDA organic seal is the top priority of the… National Organic Program.”

While the USDA has become more vigilant and transparent, it’s difficult for Canadians to know what the CFIA is doing.

Unlike the USDA, the CFIA doesn’t publish a list of countries that are at higher risk for organic violations and doesn’t report on domestic investigations.

We’ve long had a problem with that CFIA … list because it doesn’t really give us a lot of information. – Laura Telford

The CFIA reports on cancelled organic certifications, but it’s mostly a list of farmers who have changed organic certifiers or have retired.

“We’ve long had a problem with that CFIA … list because it doesn’t really give us a lot of information,” said Laura Telford, organic specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “You won’t really see a list of enforcement actions, anywhere.”

The CFIA also has a list of organic certifiers who had their licence suspended or cancelled. Since 2015, there are four certifiers on that list.

In an email, the CFIA didn’t provide details on actions it has taken to crack down on organic imports and domestic fraud.

It referred The Western Producer to its list of cancelled organic certifications.

Meanwhile, shipments of organic grains continue to flow into Canada, providing feed for organic dairies and livestock farms that don’t want to pay high prices for organic grains grown in North America. Many corn and soybean shipments are legitimately organic, but others are not.

In October, a representative of the UPA (L’Union des producteurs agricoles) in Quebec sent an email to The Western Producer.

The email was about organic crop acres in Quebec and the impact on organic corn prices.

“Some people are saying that it is because Québec expanded organic production so much that the price of organic corn is going down, which is completely untrue,” he said. “We are rather seeing cheap ‘organic’ corn being imported from India right now in the port of Montreal, which is the true downward driver of organic corn prices.”

Actual cases and allegations of organic fraud, whether it’s an organic farmer in Canada spraying his crop with glyphosate or a questionable shipment of peppers from Mexico, affects both organic growers and the organic brand.

“(It)is a very important issue that affects consumer trust and international trade in organic products. Those engaging in organic fraud are self-serving opportunists with disregard for the livelihood of their fellow producers,” said Andy Hammermeister, director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University.

“Cases of fraud should be actively investigated and those complicit should be held accountable. The CFIA is the authority responsible for taking such action and should dedicate adequate resources to curtail fraud.”

This article was originally published at The Western Producer.