It is currently difficult to know whether food labeled ‘organic’ actually is, says a food science professor.

It is currently difficult to know whether food labeled ‘organic’ actually is, says a food science professor.
Photo Credit: CBC

Organic food labels are not necessarily accurate

Canadians pay more for organic food than for conventional food, but they may not be getting anything different. Allegations against a chicken packaging company have raised questions about the accuracy of labels in Canada and the difficulty of setting standards for organic food products.

Billion dollar market growing

The market for organic foods is estimated to be worth one billion dollars annually and will grow by about four per cent for the next six or seven years. Canadians believe it to be GMO and pesticide free, safer, more nutritious and in the case of meat, that the animals were free to roam and not stuck in cages all day.

But is that what they are getting? A former employee of Cericola Farms alleges she witnessed conventional chicken being labeled and shipped as organic. Her allegations have not been proven but they don’t surprise Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph.

Listen‘Nobody really knows’

“We all know organic produce can be very significantly more expensive than conventional so, in terms of how often is conventional sold under the label of organic, nobody really knows,” he says.

However he points to a study conducted last year which suggests that nearly half of the produce listed as organic fresh fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residues. And farms that purport to produce organic food may have their licences removed or suspended if the food is not organic and there have been 63 such cases so far this year, says Warriner.

Trust in others

Part of the problem is that it is up to private organic certifying bodies to order tests and testing a single sample costs $500, so he says there is a real disincentive for testing.

Canada imports most organic food so it relies on foreign countries to ensure the food is organic.  And what is produced inside the country is difficult to certify, says Warriner.

Relying on an honour system

Canada mostly relies on an honour system, he says. “It’s built on trust. So, essentially what this means is that the retailer trusts the processor who trusts the farmer…

“When the retailer gets this organic produce he’s saying ‘oh yes, it must be true because the processor told me it’s true’ but there’s nothing stopping, obviously, the processor putting a few conventional in organics batches.”

What’s needed, says Warriner is integrated traceability, a system whereby an item can be scanned electronically to provide information about its origins. This has begun to occur in the seafood market, but he says, it will take at least five years before it is applied to organic foods.

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