Is your food organic? And how do you tell?
Let’s say you suspect a company of pretending their products are organic when they’re not. Who do you report that to? And what would the repercussions be?
“If I were to walk into Kootenay Co-op right now and see they were selling something from Fred’s Organics, I have no ability to phone somebody and say, ‘hey, there’s organic fraud going on here,’” Hummingbird Farms’ Lana Braun told the Star.
“As a consumer, you just don’t know. There’s a huge potential for folks to say they’re organic while not following the rules.”
Braun is a members of the Kootenay Organic Grower’s Society (KOGS), which hands out the majority of certifications for farms in this area. And she believes that the provincial government’s Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act, which was passed recently by the legislature and which will come into full force in 2018, will make a huge difference to the industry.
“There was a lot of confusion in the marketplace,” she said. “When you see something on the shelf right now with the word ‘organic’, it’s possible there’s many different methods and standards being used while producing this product.”
And there’s nobody that cares more about that than Nelsonites according to Save-on-Foods assistant store manager Greg Wheaton.
“Our store here in Nelson is the leading store in our company for organic and natural foods because of the clientele and demographics we have here. We’re operating out of four provinces now, with 156 stores, and our store here is number one for organic sales.”
He said the company tailor-makes their locations for the community, and people in the Kootenays demanded organic offerings. That’s why their natural foods department, which doesn’t exist in any of their other stores, is so big.
And now that the legislation is coming in, they need to pay attention.
“This might make sourcing organic food more challenging, going forward, as the farmers have greater restrictions. But the end result will be that whatever organic product we have in our store is absolutely going to meet the new legislation and criteria.”
But even if some farms or products lose their organic status, that doesn’t mean they won’t still appear in the store. They’ll just be moved to a different section.
“People care about health, that’s the number-one criteria for most people coming in. They’re worried about pesticides, genetically modified products, sustainability.”
The new legislation aims to introduce stricter standards around what gets classified organic and why. It restricts producers from using these words in marketing their products unless they receive a provincial or federal certification.
The former legislation has been criticized as too lax, and allowed producers to use misleading marketing materials.
Former Kootenay Co-op marketing manager Jocelyn Carver told the Star in 2015 the legislation left room for companies to make decisions based on profit rather than truth.
One person welcoming the new legislation is Carmen Wakeling, the co-president of the Certified Organics Associations of BC, who believes the new rules will help clear up some of the existing ambiguity around how to classify products.
“It is exciting to see these regulations move forward, and the impact they will have on providing clarity for consumers and producers within the organic marketplace,” she said.
The new rules will come into effect starting in September 2018. After that, uncertified producers who market food as organic without meeting the standards will be met with penalties, including a $350 fine.
“This legislation finally has teeth,” said Braun.
That means a verification officer, co-ordinated by KOGS, will visit farms and ensure they’re in compliance. They will check logbooks, ensure practices like crop rotation are being used, examine the soil and property and engage in conversations with the owners.
“And then say I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, like maybe I was buying carrot seed from the wrong supplier, he would say, ‘you’re out of alignment with the standard,’ and if my seed was already in the ground I might lose my certification,” Braun said.
She noted individual products can lose their certification, as well as entire institutions. And there’s different rules for selling in BC and importing or exporting across provincial and federal boundaries.
The Pacific Agricultural Certification Society (PACS) is the body you must satisfy if you want to sell your products across borders, like Kootenay Meadows in Creston does with their cheese and milk. There are several other certifying bodies in the province.
“Going forward if the rules change, the laws change, you can guarantee the products in our store will meet them,” said Wheaton.
“And that’s as important to us as it to the customers.”
The end result, Braun believes, will be clarity.
“When you see something on the shelf, you’re going to be able to feel confident that what you’re looking at is actually organic.”