Proposed law would close Ontario's organics labelling loophole

Goods both produced and sold within Ontario can be labelled 'organic' with no need for certification to back up the claim. An NDP private member's bill called the Organic Products Act would put a stop to that practice.

Goods both produced and sold in Ontario can now be labelled 'organic' without certification

An NDP private member's bill would close a loophole in Ontario that allows producers to label their product 'organic' without proof, as long as the food is both produced and sold within the province. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

An NDP private member's bill aims to help consumers get the real deal when shopping for organic products.

Right now in Ontario, any food both produced and sold inside the province can legally be labelled "organic" without any kind of certification to back up the claim.

That's not the case for foods brought in from other provinces or countries. For those foods, federal rules apply, rules which disallow the use of the term unless the label also contains the name of the certification body.

Peter Tabuns, the NDP MPP who co-sponsored the Organic Products Act with Progressive Conservative MPP Sylvia Jones, said the loophole needs to be closed for the benefit of farmers as well as consumers.

"The people who are actually taking on the cost, responsibly and honestly producing organic food, shouldn't be competing with people who are simply able to put a label on their food saying organic without actually putting in the time, effort and money to make it real," Tabuns said.

Bill passed first reading

Private member's bills rarely become law, but this one has passed first reading and is expected to go to second reading in November.

Karen Cook, who runs Aman Farms just south of Ottawa near Delta, Ont., is among those who hope MPPs vote in favour.

Cook sells organic meats and baked goods at the weekly Ottawa Organic Farmers Market, which requires farmers to provide evidence of certification. Aman Farms goes through intensive yearly inspections and pays about $2,000 a year to keep its certification, Cook said. Organic farms also cost more to operate day to day, she added.

For the pigs, "a bag of organic feed is $30. A bag of any other kind of feed at the store is $15," Cook said. "So I've got double the cost of production just in the feed for my animals."

Because her market checks for certification, Cook said she's not competing with farmers making fraudulent claims, but hears from other organic growers that it's happening elsewhere in the Ottawa area. It puts vendors in a tough spot.

"When you're at a market you can't say 'my pork is actually better than that pork next door,'" she said. "It's just not the way you do business. You don't bad-mouth other people at the market."

NDP MPP Peter Tabuns says allowing the term 'organic' to be displayed on any food both produced and sold in Ontario is unfair to the producers who incur the expense of organic certification. (CBC)

Provincial organics advocate supports bill

The Organic Council of Ontario, which advocates for organic producers, also supports the bill.

Tom Manley, the council's president, said Ontario is behind five other provinces that have already moved to close similar loopholes. Ontario could easily join them by applying federal certification rules to the goods sold inside the province, he said.

Some farmers making organic claims without certification might simply lack the time and money to pursue it, Manley said, but others are "intentionally defrauding the organic claim, and therefore hurting the organic brand for the whole market, and the consumer in particular."

Manley, who also runs Homestead Organics in Morrisburg, Ont., agreed with Karen Cook that false claims are being made by sellers in the Ottawa area. He described a visit to a meat producer in eastern Ontario a couple of years ago, which displayed a flyer advertising "our organic farm."

"I asked a couple of very basic questions, and they couldn't even certify if they wanted to," Manley said. "Yet they're using the word organic." 

Province says it will consult

Jeff Leal, Ontario's agriculture minister, told CBC in a statement that the ministry is currently reviewing the private member's bill. He also said the ministry will hold consultations this fall to gain a better understanding of the needs of the organics industry.

Right now, consumers can go beyond signs that promise "organic" and look for logos from certifiers. In addition, both the Canada Organic logo and the Foodland Ontario Organic logo confirm that a producer has met the federal standards. 

But according to Karen Cook, consumers deserve complete clarity.

"Especially the ones that I see at the market. They're desperate for good, clean, healthy food," she said.

"For some, their very health depends on their getting organic."