What you see will be what you get 

New regs to ferret out fake organic claims

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED BY JOERN ROHDE/JOERNROHDE.COM - Chris Quinlan at the farmers' market
  • photo submitted by Joern Rohde/joernrohde.com
  • Chris Quinlan at the farmers' market

We've all walked the line between confusion and clarity when it comes to buying organic.

Never mind our confused, conflicted consciences as we weigh the shelf price of organics while knowing there are other prices to pay for our conventional food supply. Or our bent for the path of least resistance, especially on a cold, wet afternoon with an empty fridge staring you in the face, and you know you should bike to X Store that carries good organics but Option B is just way easier.

One of the biggest hold-outs, though, for people buying organics — and trying to convince their pals to do the same — is fading into the sunset. And not a minute too soon.

I've got more friends and rellies than bugs in a garden who've told me, I'd buy organic but you never know... Never know if the products are truly organic or if they're... well, just about anything else.

Maybe they were grown or raised without sprays or chemicals using good practices; or maybe chemicals were used "just once." Then there are the "it's wonderfully holistic" claims, and everything in between. Maybe it's locally grown and sprayed, or maybe it's local and never been sprayed, but chemical fertilizers were used. Or maybe the beans, mushrooms or whatever simply "look organic," but were as conventionally grown as your basic carrots or chicken of unknown provenance at the big box store.

But now B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture is putting the lid on bogus organic claims with new regulations that will ensure "organic" means certified to a provincial or national organic standard.

We don't yet know the time frame for this welcome clarity — surveys and questionnaires are just going out now but Vancouver Farmers Markets operations manager, Roberta LaQuaglia, hopes a framework will be in place by summer. The bonus, though, is when all is done, B.C. will also enjoy a new, more streamlined certification system.

Up till now, the catch has been if the farmer or grower didn't sell the organic products outside the province, he/she didn't have to have third-party certification. While some farmers and producers have gone the whole nine yards to be certified by one of the B.C., Canadian or international organic standards, others have simply claimed what they sell is organic, hoping consumers were satisfied with that.

For grocery stores like Nesters Market at Whistler, this isn't an issue because anything sold as "organic" even now, before the new regs apply, must be certified organic. These goods are easy to spot: The label has the registered mark for the certifying standard — like the little circle with the maple leaf peeking out from behind hills for "Canada Organic/ Biologique Canada" or the box with a tick mark for British Columbia Certified Organic — since you, or I, or anyone can demand to see the paperwork backing up the claim. The labelling marks also help retailers make sure they're pricing things right.

"There are basically two parts: the part we purchase through suppliers that's marked 'certified organic' according to one of the many standards that are out there, whether it's Canadian, American or European," says Nesters Market manager Bruce Stewart, who brings in products from all over the world. But "local stuff" is another story.

"It's tricky," he says. "But basically, if it's grown organically but it's not certified, we will not say it's organic." On the other hand, if it's locally grown or produced, it will be clearly marked, too.

"A good chunk of people will take local over certified organic, anyway," says Bruce, "because I think they feel it's grown to a high standard, and there's some attachment to it." As in, somebody nearby, maybe your neighbour in Pemberton or Squamish or Maple Ridge, is at the other end of your dozen eggs or kale.

Still, Bruce welcomes the new regs "to create a level playing field." Ditto Chris Quinlan, manager of Whistler's farmers' market.

"We've been having this discussion in the farmers'-markets world for years, and farms as well," says Chris. He's been working to strengthen the Whistler market through more transparency and accountability, and helps other markets do the same through an initiative with the B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets.

At the Whistler market, certified organic farm vendors have always had to provide their certification and back-up paperwork. Also, "in the name of transparency," says Chris, as of 2014 they've had to display signs stating where every product comes from, as well as the certifying standard if the product is organically certified. Market changes also meant products that once were ID'd as organic, but weren't certified, could only be described as "naturally grown." No bogus organic claims allowed, and no passing off Mexican lettuce as local.

If these new regs makes retailers, market managers and consumers like you and me happy, imagine how it makes the most important people in this entire supply chain feel — our farmers who've taken the certified organic road.

"It's definitely a good thing," says Jennie Helmer, a Pemberton councillor who also helps run Helmers' 78-acre organic farm, which has been certified since the early '80s to a number of standards: Pacific Agricultural Certification Society (PACS), which stores like Whole Foods demand; Demeter, an international standard for biodynamic certification to build soil health; and more.

Jennie figures the cost of certification adds up to thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of work each year, doing everything from keeping track of oodles of paperwork to shepherding the inspector around the farm once a year — always at their busiest time — to inspect fields, greenhouses, even their organic seed packages and what they're putting in the ground.

"But at the end of the day, I do believe if you're calling yourself 'organic' on any scale, you should be certified, because the people who are certified are paying for that, and it's a big deal — it's not a tick box," she says.

Certification also builds trust for consumers and knocks some of the confusion out of what's become a very complicated, competitive industry.

"The trade-off is that the consumer has some faith that you are who you say you are, because you've been certified by an independent body."

And all of us can relate to that.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who says thumbs up to independent verification.

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