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This issue: The new Certified Organic regime in Canada
Previous issue: A Guide to Ontario's Growing Season
Next issue: Sustainable Fish - what to make of organic fish farms,

wild caught and other alternatives.


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VOLUME 26 ... THE NEW CANADA ORGANIC REGIME
Certainly a step forward, but we have a long way to go.

by Mario Fiorucci, Co-Founder of The Healthy Butcher

 

What is organic meat? The question is seemingly simple, yet to say confusion exists among consumers as to what “organic” means is an understatement. A big thanks goes to those brilliant marketers who have mined almost every English word that connotes organic – “natural”, “naturally raised”, “free range”, “cage free”, “hormone-free”, “additive-free” – each meaning nothing specific and far from being “Certified Organic”. What the heck is a “natural” cow anyways? Isn’t the fact that it was breathing at one point make it “natural”? In December, 2008, new federal Organic Regulations take effect which will slightly change the landscape of how organic meat and organic food in general is produced and labeled. Let’s take a few steps back to understand the progress of organics in Canada to date.

 

continued below...

 

 

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VOLUME 26 ... THE NEW CANADA ORGANIC REGIME
Certainly a step forward, but we have a long way to go.

 
What is organic meat? The question is seemingly simple, yet to say confusion exists among consumers as to what “organic” means is an understatement. A big thanks goes to those brilliant marketers who have mined almost every English word that connotes organic – “natural”, “naturally raised”, “free range”, “cage free”, “hormone-free”, “additive-free” – each phrase meaning nothing specific and far from being “Certified Organic”. What the heck is a “natural” cow anyways? Doesn’t the fact that it was breathing at one point make it “natural”? In December, 2008, new federal Organic Regulations take effect which will change the landscape of how organic meat and organic food in general is produced and labeled. Let’s take a look at how we got to where we are today and where we’re headed.

Since 1999, Canada has had voluntary national organic standards in place. The standards required that for a food to be considered “Certified Organic”, it would have to be raised or grown according to principles that are at least as beneficial as those set out in the Standard for Organic Agriculture (CAN/CGSB-32.310). Further, the farmer must be certified by one of a limited number of private certifying bodies that has been accredited by the Standards Council of Canada. For example, the majority of the meat sold at The Healthy Butcher is accredited by the agency called the Organic Crop Producers & Processors of Ontario (OCPP). OCPP’s standards are a small book onto themselves, and detail almost every aspect of how organic crops are to be grown, and how organic meat is to be raised. For example, meat that is Certified Organic by OCPP requires:
  • No use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers in the growing of the animals’ feed, and all feed must be 100% organic;

  • No use of genetically modified organisms;

  • No use of growth hormones;

  • No use of drugs (such as antibiotics);

  • No use of animal by-products for feed;

  • Treating animals humanely (i.e. they have outside access at all times, and space requirements are set out on a per animal basis); and

  • All records are kept for 5 years.

The process of being certified by an independent agency is what makes an organic product “Certified Organic”. I like to compare the certification process to financial auditing; would you invest your money into a company without audited financial statements? No. On the same token, the certification process adds a higher level of legitimacy to the claims that the farmer is making.

There has always been two prominent weaknesses with the current organic system in Canada: (1) there is no official enforcer appointed to oversee the implementation of the organic standards, or govern the use of the word “organic” and protect consumers against misleading or deceptive labeling practices; and (2) the organic standards are not consistent from one certifying agency to another because the published federal standards form only the minimum requirements – each certifying agency has adopted their own version of what “Certified Organic” should mean – so, one agencies “organic” is not equal to another agencies “organic”.

With these problems in mind and the explosion of the organic food industry, the Canadian government moved forward to implement an official Canada Organic regime. The Organic Regulation was passed into law December 14, 2006, with a two-year transition period, meaning in December of this year the new regime is to take effect. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is the appointed enforcer of the new regime. The new organic standards will be mandatory for those who wish to market their product as organic, and the product will be traded across provincial or international borders or bear the Canada Organic Logo. Canada Organic Logo

 

The process of getting a food “certified” essentially remains the same; a processor still needs to be certified by a private agency that is accredited by the government. Except after December of this year, the accreditation for the certifying agencies will be performed by the CFIA, and the organic standards that are to be met are now unified – i.e. agencies will not be creating their own standards as is currently. The Standards for Organic Agriculture - which before only formed a set of “minimum” requirements - were revamped in 2006 to become comprehensive standards with less room for interpretation.

Like the standards used by OCPP, the new federal Organic Production standards set out details for sustainable practices like animal welfare, soil fertility via crop rotation, mulching and manure management, and the prohibition of GMOs, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides (if you wish to peruse the full set of standards, click here). The overarching principle of the standard is to “develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment.”

Without a doubt, the new regime is a step forward in Canada and will bring us closer to a unified set of standards to define “organic”. I wish I could say with confidence that the new regulations are the magic bullet for eliminating confusion in the organic industry; but I can’t. I see three apparent weaknesses that will limit the effectiveness of the new regime. First, for products that travel only within the province (in other words, the majority of products that matter to us), organic certification will remain voluntary as it is currently. Presumably, a product can still claim to be organic and not fall under the new regime so long as it is not crossing provincial or international borders or bearing the Canada Organic Logo. If farmers and processors are allowed to make an organic claim for non-organic products marketed within a province, the integrity of the word organic will quickly be eroded and consumer confusion will increase rather than decrease. Understandably, the federal government does not have jurisdiction to enforce laws within the provinces. But I would have thought that a major part of the new regime would have been to take a lead and work with the provinces from the get go to adopt a single national organic program. It should be noted that both Quebec and B.C. have provincial bodies in place to govern organic. Manitoba will be enacting a provincial law this December that enforces the national Organic Regulation. Hopefully, we’ll see all of the provinces follow suit.

Second, will the new regime function as another barrier for small farmers? I phrase this as a question rather than a statement because we’ll have to wait and see how the CFIA enforces the regime. I started this article by essentially bashing the other terms that are used to advertise food – natural, naturally raised, etc. All phrases used other than “Certified Organic” have no legal meaning, and are self-governing. But frankly, many of the small farmers in Ontario, for that matter, many that we deal with at The Healthy Butcher, are not big enough to undertake the certification process to become Certified Organic – nor does it make economic sense. We often carry “Naturally Raised” products because they are the best out there, and often times, better than the Certified Organic alternatives. I would much rather buy Elk from a small Ontario farmer three hours away who raises his Elk 100% on pasture but is not Certified Organic, than to import Certified Organic Elk from thousands of miles away and not know for sure how the animals are raised or what they are fed. The key for all the products we carry is to know the farmer and visit the farm to understand what he or she is doing, and then be able to explain to the end consumer with certainty that this Elk was raised locally, without the use of any hormones or antibiotics, and raised solely on a pasture that has not been sprayed with any pesticide or fertilizer for over ten years. Being 100% grassfed, the resultant Elk meat naturally has a high level of Omega 3s and essential fatty acids (which disappear if grains or corn are introduced into the diet to fatten the animal). So yes, the Elk we carry is labeled “Naturally Raised”, one of those very phrases that I despise; but I have the knowledge of what that phase means to us to share with anyone who cares to listen.

I visit other food retailers as often as possible – “comp shops” as they call them. I found myself in the meat section of a large grocery store nearby, which will remain nameless (it rhymes with Rominion). I picked up a plastic wrapped package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts made by Maple Leaf Foods Inc. that was labeled “Prime Naturally”. Huh? This was definitely worth a little more research. As it turns out, Maple Leaf Foods uses a vegetable grain feed composed of a “blend of corn, wheat, soybean, canola, and vitamins that contains no animal by-products”. Truthfully, I thought feeding vegetables and grains to chickens without animal by-products was a given. But ask if antibiotics are allowed, how many chickens are raised in a barn and whether or not they ever see the light of day, if the vegetables and grains in the feed are all GMOs… no comment. Clearly, the term “Naturally” has many meanings.

Returning to the point at hand – the new regime does not protect the small farmers that need protection. The small farmers are those that are keeping breeds diverse – keeping Berkshire and Tamworth pork from disappearing off the planet, and keeping heirloom varieties of tomatoes in existence. The CFIA has the ability of strictly enforcing the new regulations and stopping producers from labeling its products “natural” because that term “suggests to the purchaser that the product or its ingredients were obtained according to organic production methods.” I would welcome strict enforcement so long as there is a system in place to help small farmers into the organic system. But there isn’t. So what will happen to my Naturally Raised Elk? Will it be classified as conventional, even though clearly it is not? I am quite certain that the large-scale organic companies with a lot of money behind their production will be able to caress the regulations and market their products effectively. It’s a lose-lose situation for the small farmer. I often hear about the sad stories of farmers in third world countries growing coffee beans who can’t make ends meet; I have secret to share with everyone – if you want to meet poor farmers, just visit most small Ontario farms. Our local farmers need our support now, more than ever, and the new Canada Organic regime does nothing to aid them. Hopefully, the CFIA realizes the importance of protecting the small producers and enforces the rules in a way that favours the authentic farmers.

And finally, my biggest qualm – I believe the new Canada Organic logo will give more marketing prowess to internationally produced McOrganic food rather than support locally produced food. A mere ten years ago when someone spoke of “organic”, it was assumed that the product was “local”. A mere sixty years ago before the explosion of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and the growth of travel, there was pretty much no other way to eat besides local and organic. Today, the new organic standards do nothing to differentiate local products. At what point did the localness leave organics? I fear that many consumers will be swayed to purchase a package of lamb chops that is labeled with the fancy “Canada Organic” logo, despite the fact that the lamb was raised in New Zealand. Yet, there is no limitation on carbon footprint.

Do you know that food may be labeled as “Product of Canada” so long as 51% of the production costs, or the “last substantial transformation” of the product, happens in Canada? Ridiculous isn’t it? With the Canada Organic label, the federal government had a perfect opportunity to show its understanding of the deficiencies in the current “Product of Canada” / “Made in Canada” monikers and gain real ground in giving validity to locally produced food. Unfortunately, the Canada Organic logo was designed with no such understanding in mind. However, rumour has it that the official implementation of the new organic regime will likely be delayed into sometime in 2009 because the Canada Organic logo will be redesigned to reflect the origin so that products labeled “Canada Organic” won’t be interpreted as being a product of Canada if is not. We’ll soon see how the logo is redesigned and whether the “localness” of organics is brought a step closer.

All in all, I am very happy to see an official recognition in Canada of organic products. I have always been, and will continue to be, a huge supporter of Certified Organic products. But we have a long way to go before consumers can have 100% faith in the government enforced system. It does nothing to prevent McOrganic products all over store shelves. And it does nothing to reduce our consumption of imported products. Never has food been more of a global commodity than it is today. We have access to all fruits, all vegetables, all meat, 365 days of the year. Is the real choice only between organic versus conventional, or imported versus local? Throughout all of our discussion we often forget about the option of not eating fresh tomatoes in February. Now, more than ever, whether you are buying your food at your local butcher shop, grocery store, or farmers market, you must ask questions. And ask a lot of questions! If you don’t get satisfactory answers, find another source. And now, more than ever, faith and trust in the people that source your food is essential. Support the retailers that share your values otherwise within a few years your only option will be to buy products and thereby support the very producers you wish to avoid.

 

 

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