Organic industry gets uncomfortable news

It was just a matter of time before the Achilles heel of organic food production was going to be exposed, and a recent CBC news report hit the issue right between the eyes.

The report stated that 45 per cent of organic produce randomly tested by the CFIA showed traces of pesticides. Organic industry spokespeople were quick to point fingers elsewhere in an effort to deflect the bad news away from themselves. The reality is the industry has always known that residue testing was the weak link in their marketing efforts. That’s why virtually every organic marketing and lobby group in North America fought to not have mandatory residue testing as part of any certification process.

It’s worse in Canada where the CFIA does not even have threshold or testing clauses (it seems to be at their theoretical discretion) in its Canada Organic certification standards. At least with USDA organic standards testing and pesticide thresholds are addressed. It makes you wonder why the CFIA carried out the secret tests and then forced the CBC to use the Access to Information Act to access the information. I would suggest that with no legal requirement requiring testing, the CFIA may well stop further secret testing to avoid attracting this type of media attention.

The organic industry doesn’t help its cause by blaming the testing results on everything except possible fraud by some of its own growers and marketers. They would boost their credibility by seriously advocating a testing program that deals with the residue reality and shows a willingness to improve the situation. People can be very understanding if one admits there is a problem and then works on a resolution. For instance, if imported organic products are the culprit in high pesticide residues, then endorse a program that sets pesticide thresholds that cannot be exceeded at the grower/importer level, and not just promises.

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What about double testing at the grower and retail level to see if contamination occurs along the marketing chain? Being proactive would bring much needed transparency to organic marketing.

The organic industry appears to accept that the residue levels that were found are extremely low and pose no health risk. But that’s also true of almost all non-organic regular food products. It’s rather disingenuous to state that regardless of the testing results, organic food has lower levels of residues than regular food, when the testing is in minuscule parts per million and even billion.

In the bigger picture, honest labelling should be the goal of the food industry and that includes the organic sector. For many food products, it’s not possible to make claims that they are pesticide free, GMO free, hormone free. This testing report proves that point. Will the entire marketing chain collapse and consumers revolt if we had mandatory labels that stated that a food product may contain certain chemicals, GMOs, additives, whatever, but are perfectly safe to eat? What a giant step to product awareness that would be for the consumer. However, I fear that in some areas of food marketing, perception is still more important than transparency.

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