Wednesday, January 15, 2014

CFIA Fails On Organics

Photo via Wikipedia

 Life isn't perfect,we know that. If you want to buy organic vegetables, you can't always get everything you want locally. This is Canada, after all, and we do have these extended winters. So we have to accept that if we are going to have fresh veg in the winter we may have to import it. Unless you live on lower Vancouver Island or are a seasonal eater--then you can eat winter vegetables that take well to storage; squash, carrots, turnips and rutabagas,  and the like.
If you want to eat organic vegetables, you can find more and more of it in the stores. The remarkable rise in demand has led suppliers to begin operating more and more of those weird hybrids; industrial organic farms. And Canada doesn't grow near the volume of organic vegetables that we consume, so we do a lot of importing.
Certification of Canada's organic farms is handled by agencies vetted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA is also responsible for the safety of food imported and exported from this country. In line with this responsibility, the CFIA has been monitoring pesticide residues on imported labeled-organic vegetables. According to a recent CBC article:
The Canadian government brought in the Organic Products Regulations in 2009 requiring organic food producers to have their products certified by an accredited third-party certification body.
The certifiers conduct annual farm and facility inspections meant to ensure the organic producers are following the rules.
Rola Yehia, acting national manager of the CFIA’s consumer protection division, said, “If there is non-permitted substances found in organic products, we would notify the CFIA-accredited certification body who would request the organic operator to take corrective action."
"So we have the system in place, and we have the confidence in our system, and we have the mechanism to address any non-compliances if they arise,” said Yehia, whose oversight includes the Canada Organic Office of the CFIA.
"We have a good relationship with the industry, so we work together to correct any gaps in the system," Yehia added.
Health Canada sets a maximum residue limit (MRL) for food products, representing the most that is expected to remain on food. One of the reasons for this is because the world isn't perfect. Organic farms are not isolated from industrial farms, so it is to be expected that occasionally there might be pesticide drift from an industrial farm to an organic one. And "We see pesticide residues throughout our environment. It's in our soil, they're in our water, drinking water now, and there's new reports coming out showing there's pesticides in fetal cord blood. So unfortunately, it's really hard to have a zero pesticide residue any longer," said Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canada Organic Trade Association.
But what the CBC found out was that, while the CFIA was conducting MRL tests on organic food over the past decade, there were some troubling numbers. As much as eight percent of organic produce tested by Canadian inspectors has so much pesticide residue that experts say there is a strong indication synthetic chemicals were deliberately used. That is, farms allegedly using organic techniques appear to have been spraying chemicals on their produce--so much so that unacceptable residue levels remain on the vegetables even after they arrive in your local supermarket.
This is happening in the US as well.But there is a difference between the two countires. The US government was approached by American organic producers with a request to beef up enforcement of the organic rules. From the CBC story:
Starting in 2013, the USDA required five per cent of organic operations to undergo routine pesticide residue testing.
The U.S. testing protocol is part of a beefed up enforcement plan that was implemented at the request of organic farmers, according to the USDA’s McEvoy.
“They were seeing violations that were occurring, and enforcement was not occurring. Civil penalties were not being used,” McEvoy said.
“But I think organic farmers in particular, when they see violations, they want everyone to be held to the same standard and they want the penalties to be significant so that people are playing by the same rules,” McEvoy said.
The USDA responded to the organic farmers’ concerns by assessing approximately $500,000 in fines involving dozens of operators in the last four years. It even sent cases to criminal court.
In April 2012, Harold Chase of Springfield, Ore., was sent to prison for more than two years after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud for selling in excess of four million pounds of corn falsely labelled as organically grown. Chase is one of three people the USDA helped put in jail in the last few years. “The penalties send the message that you can't get away with defrauding the organic consumer,” McEvoy said.
So the US actually put some operators in jail for fraud around the question of organic farming. What about here in Canada? After all, we have a government that keeps telling us that our food is safe--even though there's been BSE found in Alberta, Tyson Foods was just recently forced into the biggest meat recall  in Canadian history, and the US Dept. of Agriculture recently gave the Canadian food inspection regime a grade of just barely "adequate."
Well, to no one's surprise, CFIA has done nothing. There has not been a single case of criminal prosecution involving organic production by CFIA. They have, on occasion, pulled organic certification from companies not following the rules, but these companies are both allowed to go on producing (albeit without the organic certification), and have not faced any serious discipline for the fraud committed on the consumers of their products.
We are dealing with a government that simply does not believe that there should be any outside, impartial inspection of our food system, and that the companies responsible for processing our food should be allowed to police themselves. The fox guards the hen house, and when we notice that there are considerably fewer fowl than there were a while ago, we're told to "move along. Nothing to see here." And we are left unable to trust our food supply, unable to trust in the regulations, and most certainly unable to trust our government.

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