FAQs | Canada's rules for organic food

It has been two years since Canada adopted national regulations governing the sale of organic products. We take a closer look at how the certification system works.

It has been two and a half years since Canada set out new federal regulations governing the production and sale of organic products. We take a closer look at how the certification system works.

How does Canada regulate organic products?

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency adopted the Organic Products Regulations in June 2009, in large part to comply with stricter European requirements on exported produce. At the same time, it introduced the Canada Organic label for products certified under the new rules.

The Canada Organic label was introduced in 2009. To carry the label, a product must be certified organic by a CFIA-accredited body. ((Canadian Food Inspection Agency))

The federal regulations were incorporated into the Agricultural Products Act and are enforced in conjunction with the Organic Production Systems – General Principles and Management Standards, more commonly referred to as the Canadian Organic Standards, which lay out the specific production practices that must be followed for a product to be considered organic. 

Together, these rules make up what the government has dubbed the Canada Organic Regime. 

The federal regulations apply only to producers who want to use the Canada Organic label and to those who sell organic products across provincial, territorial or international borders. For products produced and sold in the same province, provincial regulations apply.

Some provinces, notably British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, have chosen to pass legislation making the federal regulations mandatory even for products that remain within the province.

Prior to the introduction of the regulations, certification was voluntary and certification bodies did not have to be accredited by the CFIA.

Groups such as the Canadian Organic Growers, which was created in the 1970s, played a large role in formulating the organic farming standards in use today and lobbied government for years to implement them across the industry.

What is organic?

The agencies that certify a product as organic use the Canadian Organic Standards to assess ingredients and production methods.

The standards lay out the specifics of organic production, including how livestock must be housed, fed, transported and slaughtered; how specific crops and produce are to be grown, extracted, processed and stored; how pests and diseases are to be treated; which substances, methods and ingredients may not be used; and what environmental factors must be taken into consideration. 

Which products can be labelled 'organic'?

If a producer wants to use the Canada Organic logo on their product or if a producer wants to sell a product labelled organic somewhere other than the province in which it was produced, that producer is subject to the following rules under the Organic Products Regulations:

  • Only products with at least 95 per cent organic content may be labelled as "organic" or bear the "organic" logo. These products must be certified and the name of the certification body must appear on the label.
  • Multi-ingredient products with 70-95 per cent organic content may have the declaration: "contains xx% organic ingredients." These products may not use the organic logo and/or the claim to be "organic." These products must be certified and the name of the certification body must appear on the label.
  • Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 per cent "organic" content may only contain organic claims in the product's ingredient list. These products do not require certification and may not use the "organic" logo. However, the organic ingredients contained within these products must be certified.

Use of the Canada Organic label is voluntary, so not all products that have been certified organic have the label, but all products traded interprovincially must have the name of the certifying body on their packaging. If products are not packaged, such as at a farmers market or farm store, the certificate from the certifying body should be displayed at the point of sale.

What do the rules say about pesticides?

Farmers like Ann Slater, who produces nearly 250 varieties of organic lettuce at her farm near St. Mary's, Ont., must follow strict production standards to have their produce certified organic. ((Canadian Press))

The Organic Production Systems – General Principles and Management Standards that outline the specifics of organic production prohibit the use of "synthetic pesticides (e.g. defoliants and desiccants, fungicides, insecticides and rodenticides), wood preservatives (e.g., arsenate) or other pesticides that are not on the permitted substances list. 

The standards, do, however carry a disclaimer:

"Organic practices and this standard cannot assure that organic products are entirely free of residues of substances prohibited by this standard and of other contaminants, since exposure to such compounds from the atmosphere, soil, ground water and other sources may be beyond the control of the operator. The practices permitted by this standard are designed to assure the least possible residues at the lowest possible levels."

Who is in charge of certifying organic products?

There are several certification bodies accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to certify products as organic in Canada. There are also several Conformity Verification Bodies that monitor certification bodies and can recommend an organization for accreditation.

How does a product get certified?

To get organic certification for an agricultural product or to be able to label a product as organic, a person must apply to one of the CFIA-accredited certification bodies within 12 months of the day on which the product is expected to be marketed.

The application must set out the substances and methods used in the production and processing of the agricultural product and the control mechanisms used to ensure these comply with the Canadian Organic Standards. For multi-ingredient products, the applicant must specify the composition and the percentage of organic products.

CFIA-accredited certification body must conduct an on-site inspection to verify that the organic standards are being met before granting certification. The inspection must include all production and processing operations, including packaging and labelling, and must occur during the production season.

To retain their organic certification, a producer must pass annual inspections by the certification body. In addition to these, the certifying agencies must conduct unannounced visits every year on three per cent of primary producers and five per cent of other operators to whom they've granted certification.

What about imported organic products?

Organic standards vary by country and are tailored to local climate and growing conditions. Generally, producers who want to sell their products in a foreign country must certify their goods to the standard of that country.

Some countries have mutual agreements recognizing each other's standards. Canada has such an agreement with the U.S., meaning products certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are automatically considered organic in Canada and vice versa.

There is one exception to this agreement that prohibits milk and milk products to be labelled organic in the U.S. if they come from Canadian dairy animals that have been treated with antibiotics.

Under the Canadian Organic Regime, antibiotic treatment of dairy animals is permitted in emergencies under certain conditions, but the U.S. systems bars it completely.

About 70 to 80 per cent of organic products in Canada are imported, primarily from the U.S. The bulk of Canada's organic exports is grain, sold mainly to the European Union.