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'Organic' Certification Expands in Canada but Criticized in the U.S.

While Canada unveils its own certification system, the U.S.'s label is criticized by consumers.

The integrity of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic certification is under fire from citizen complaints, and the department is expanding an investigation to ensure all products under the label meets the standard, The Washington Post reports.

The article pokes holes in the certification system, noting that some certified products can contain up to five percent synthetic ingredients and the list of allowable synthetic substances has grown more than threefold since the list was created in 2002.

"Congress adopted the organics law after farmers and consumers demanded uniform standards for produce, dairy and meat. The law banned synthetics, pesticides and genetic engineering from foods that would bear a federal organic label. It also required annual testing for pesticides. And it was aimed at preventing producers from falsely claiming their foods were organic."

The article continued, noting, "The original law's mandate for annual pesticide testing was also never implemented -- the agency left that optional."

"In 2003, Arthur Harvey, who grows organic blueberries in Maine, successfully sued the USDA, arguing that the fledgling National Organic Program had violated federal law by allowing synthetic additives."

"The Organic Trade Association, which represents corporations such as Kraft, Dole and Dean Foods, lobbied for and received language in a 2006 appropriations bill allowing certain synthetic food substances in the preparation, processing and packaging of organic foods, creating conditions for a flood of processed organic foods."

This may not come as a surprise to those who follow the organic food movement; in 2007, the watch dog group Conucopia Institute accused Wal-Mart of mislabeling non-organic food as organic.

Consumer advocates are hoping the Obama Administration will help strenghten organic regulations, bolstered by the fact that Kathleen A. Merrigan, organics expert and deputy to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, said she "intends to heighten enforcement," the Post reports.

Complaints at Home, Celebration Abroad

And what is seen as a boon to exports of organic food from the U.S., Canada announced its own certification system's rules would take effect on June 30.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the office in charge of the organic program, notes that all products must meet that country's standards.

"To this end, an equivalency arrangement was recently reached with the United States to allow Canadian and American products to be certified as organic in either country. This agreement gives Canadian consumers more organic choices and organic farmers increased trade opportunities," the Food Inspection Agency website reports.

In addition, an an article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported: "Under a June 17 agreement with the United States, the CFIA will consider the USDA certification equivalent to its own, and vice versa."

"Accordingly, products that have been certified organic in the U.S. will bear both the CFIA stamp and the USDA logo."

Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan acknowledged the agreement recently during an organic trade show in Chicagolast week at the All Things Organic Trade Show and Conference in Chicago, reports Mother Nature Network.

"Today's agreement between the world's two largest organic trading partners is an important first step towards global harmonization of organic standards."

Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager for Nature's Path, said in a telephone interview that he has been closely involved in government discussions of the development of Canada's Organic label. The full equivalency agreement, the first in the world, is a reciprocal agreement that will allow certified organic products to have the label from either their home country or both countries.

"The equivalency agreement will help to boost organic sales worldwide, and we are hoping other nations will follow our lead," and enact certification standards with similar requirements, Falck said. The standards aren't identical, for example: Canada prescribes the size of animal pens for livestock, while the U.S. language is more general.

In addition to producing cereals and waffles, "Nature's Path is an active contriubor to organic movement," said Falck, who recently finished his term as Vice President for Canada on the Organic Trade Association. Developing a national standard and regulations for Canada is a sovereignty issue, but streamlining the trade process is essential to the growth of the market.

And to the critics who say the organic label means nothing, Falck acknowledges the certification process -- as well as the debate surrounding it -- is nuanced and not an "either or" situation.

"To me, the reality lies somewhere between," he said. "Certainly there are problems with enforcement, regulation and consistency...(but) how do you create a ssystem is absolutely perfect? We have to look at it from a distance, and ask 'is it individual components that need attention or is the whole system rotten?'"

He continued, "We don’t have a broken system; we have pieces that need to be fixed."

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