Friday, September 30, 2011

Certified Organic: There IS a Difference- List of CO Agencies

Research agrees on the fundamentals: that organics have more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients than conventionally grown, without adding more calories or fat.  The only disagreement stems from how much more?  45-85% seems to be range, depending on the product or the circumstances (how long it's been out of the field, how much processing, etc.).  So it's obvious that, even with the slightly higher prices, organics are far better for your family and even taste superior to conventional.

But that's only the most directly noticeable reason to insist on certified organic. The widesweeping attempt at Greenwashing, especially by transnationals, have done their very best to give the impression that 'natural', 'organic', 'wholesome', 'whole food' and other glittering generalities offer the same benefits as certified organically grown. They have also made inroads on persuading the public that the designation really doesn't mean much, so they don't have to work to achieve it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Certified organic means, like ISO and other third party standards, that a separate organization, often a not-for-profit or government agency, has been invited in to audit the company, product, and policies. They look at the paper trails, tour the facilities, and extensively test the products, soils, and other on-site components. Only after thorough investigation, and years after the conversion from conventional, does a company or product earn a third party certified organic designation. Although each organization has different qualifications, some agreed upon requirements are universal. Products must be GMO-free, contaminants must be minimal at most, practices must be sustainable and usually have to include soil generation and increase of future use, no pharmaceutical or chemical use, and often include labour, animal rights and other ethical standards.

To certify a farm, the farmer is typically required to engage in a number of new activities, in addition to normal farming operations:
Study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.
Compliance — farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.
Documentation — extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.
Planning — a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.
Inspection — annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.
Fee — an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400–$2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).
Record-keeping — written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.
In addition, short-notice or surprise inspections can be made, and specific tests (e.g. soil, water, plant tissue) may be requested."

When you insist on and buy third party certified organic, it encourages healthy, sustainable practices, keeps farmers off GMO's and chemicals, and recompenses the growers and companies for going to all the bother and expensive of maintaining those high standards. It is clearly superior to simply locally grown, which might be entirely chemical, isn't examined for ethics or sustainability, and doesn't necessarily encourage good practices. But not all third party certification is created equal. With the deliberate increase in confusion created by the transnationals and other greenwashers, how do you know which third party certification to look for on your favourite produce and products?

Beware of imitations! Many logos are now dressed up to imply a reputable certifier without actually being one. And price is no indicator. Organic, despite the increased cost to certify, can create more yield, less waste, and therefore can often be offered at a comparable price to conventional. It is a myth that organic has to cost more, especially *that* much more. Many grocers, particularly those who are less interested in increasing the market for organic, will often gouge their customers to perpetuate the "high price of organics" illusion, as well as make much more of a profit on those prepared to pay more for better. And some merchants just don't know how to price food properly.

For an idea of how to eat organic in Edmonton, the list is here.

List of Logos to look for:


 California Certified Organic Farmers:

Originally known as California Organic Food Act Certified, this non-profit group is one of the first third party certifiers in North America, forming much of the basis for many new certifiers and government standards.

From their website: "CCOF was founded in 1973 as a mutual assistance and certification organization for organic farmers and was one the first organizations to perform organic certification in North America. Since then, the CCOF seal has been your assurance of certification with integrity. Today, CCOF maintains one of the most consumer recognized and trusted seals in the organic marketplace. CCOF remains one of the oldest and largest organic certification and trade associations in North America, with more than 2,000 certified members throughout the farm and processing community and more than 350 supporting members."

BC Certified Organic:

One of my personal favourites.  Around since at least the early 90's, it's local, non-profit, volunteer, co-op like, but with very high standards. It also tries to integrate growers, markets, and promote organic practices overall. 

Oregon Tilth:

Another one of the oldest and most trusted names in North America organic certification. From their website: "Oregon Tilth is a nonprofit research and education membership organization dedicated to biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture".  It's used in many places in North America and is an international standard.

OCIA - Organic Crop Improvement Association logo

OCIA - Organic Crop Improvement Association Canada

"OCIA International is one of the world's oldest, largest and most trusted leaders in the organic certification industry. A nonprofit, member-owned, agricultural organization, OCIA is dedicated to providing the highest quality organic certification services and access to global organic markets. "


Pro-Cert provides organic certification and verification services beyond the farm gate for client producers and processors in Canada and the USA.  From their website: "Pro-Cert resulted from the merger in 1999 of two very similar organic certification agencies:  •Organic Crop Producers & Processors (OCPP) of Ontario, Canada, •Pro-Cert Organic Systems (Pro-Cert) of Saskatchewan, Canada...Pro-Cert certifies some 1,700 organic producers, processors, handlers and traders in Canada and the US. "

Bio Siegel :

From Wiki: "In Germany the national label was introduced in September 2001 following in the footsteps of the political campaign of "Agrarwende" (agricultural major shift) led by minister Renate Künast of the Greens party. This campaign was started after the mad-cow disease epidemic in 2000. The effects on farming are still challenged by other political parties. The national "Bio"-label in its hexagon green-black-white shape has gained wide popularity - in 2007 there were 2431 companies having certified 41708 products. The popularity of the label is extending to neighbouring countries like Austria, Switzerland and France."


From Wiki: "The European organic food label has been mandatory throughout the EU since July 2010. Originally it was planned to replace the old national organic labels but it was finally decided to allow for a transition period where both the EU label and the national labels may be used to mark organic food. .. Unlike earlier labels no words are presented on the label lifting the requirement for translations referring to organic food certification."


One of the world's oldest and highest standards of certified organic. "Demeter International is the largest certification organization for biodynamic agriculture, and is one of three predominant organic certifiers....The Demeter certification program was established in 1928, and as such was the first ecological label for organically produced foods.  The certification is the oldest traditional organic certification in Europe and is regarded as the highest grade of organic farming in the world. Certification is difficult to come by and must be renewed annually. Demeter’s “biodynamic” certification requires biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, prohibition of genetically engineered organisms and viewing the farm as a living “holistic organism”. The certification verifies the standards on behalf of the farmers, which in turn guarantees high quality food products to the consumers."


France based, it's one of the older and trusted certifications from before the EU, and considered to be a higher standard.  Ecocert has been recognized and trusted in health food and whole food stores in North America for decades.  According to Ecocert Canada: "Ecocert issues certifications for organic farming products, natural and organic cosmetics, organic textiles, fair trade, etc."

Nature et Progres:

Another French based, trusted and older brand,  its very high standards are no longer considered legally "organic" in Europe.  Their cosmetic version in particular is known to be very strict.  However, many producers are turning to other third party certifiers as well to be able to be considered CO.  I personally like their requirements because they prohibit so many petrochemicals from inclusion, and with its peer and consumer review process, are able to certify other products that are not usually included as "organic", such as traditional French farmed salt.  One of my personal favourites...

Quality Assurance International:

Known and trusted in health and whole food stores since 1989, they are starting to make me nervous now.  I'm seeing it on all the Safeway "O" organics products, and part of me is suspicious that, rather than Safeway rising to the standards of QAI, that instead that certification has been lowered to meet those of Safeway.  Or maybe I'm just paranoid.  Maybe Safeway really has stepped up to be as organic and sustainable as QAI is usually known for.  But for some reason, only on those products and not the rest of their food...

usda organic

USDA Organic:

Now used in much of Canada as well, I only go with this one when I can't find any better. It's one of the lowest standards but is still recognized as "organic".   For example, "small farms and food facilities can label their products organic as long as their sales don't exceed $5,000 in a year", things like that.  In fact, I suspect that USDA Organic is doing it's very best to water down "organic" standards in general, making it easier for companies to get "organic" labeling while not changing their practices significantly. [Pesticides in (USDA) Organic Strawberry Plants] Though it's still superior to conventional.  They are also trying to make themselves the only standard so watch out for claims that if it's not USDA Organic, it's not CO.  That's simply not true, and it's nearly bankrupting other products that already adhere to a much higher standard.


Although not organic per se, the Transfair or Fairtrade logo is also extremely important to look for in all your purchases.  From the Canadian website: "Fair Trade is a different way of doing business. It's about making principles of fairness and decency mean something in the marketplace. It seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy - to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal. Most often this is understood to mean better prices for producers, but it often means longer-term and more meaningful trading relationships as well."

Logos to watch out for!

Fair Trade USA: 

As of January, 2012, Fair Trade USA has split from FairTrade International, largely to support the certification of large corporate plantations instead of small farmers or co-operatives.  FairTrade Canada, one of the founding members of FairTrade International, strenuously disagrees and will still be maintaining the original standards and logo.  Don't be fooled! Specifically favouring large producers crowds out the small, independant farmers that FairTrade was in part established to protect in the first place.  It's not just about giving the workers a fair wage. It's about local control of land, economy, and by extention, power.  Fair Trade USA is, in my opinion, a disgrace to the name and meaning of the concept and should be heartily slapped back into the age of colonization and slavery where it belongs.

Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship.

Funded by the US Agency for International Development and a number of private agencies, it's a great example of Classic Greenwashing.  Popping up on a huge variety of products in 2008, their website offers services to certify just about everything!  I've never seen such whoremongering for a logo.  Just look at all the big name companies already on their certification list!  And so quickly, too, with such a high end website, integrated business services, and Kids Corner.  Companies whose Coffee is RA certified in Canada:

7-Eleven Canada
Second Cup
Shell Canada

Yep, I associate all those companies with sustainable business practices, good labour relations, and saving the rainforest, and always have.  I'm so glad that the good people at the Rainforest Alliance have eased all of my doubts... 

From Wiki: "Rainforest Alliance agricultural certification has been criticized by a range of academics and media sources. The Manchester Evening News notes that critics have dubbed the Rainforest Alliance "Fairtrade lite" therefore offering companies such as Chiquita and Kraft a cheap way to tap into the ethical consumer market. This is known as greenwashing, as it allows companies and products to appear more ethical and environmentally friendly without actually being either. Alex Nicholls, professor of social entrepreneurship at Oxford University, called Rainforest Alliance certification "an easy option for companies looking for a "flash in the pan at a cheap price"....Rainforest Alliance certification has been criticized for allowing the use of the seal on coffee containing a minimum of 30% of certified coffee beans. According to Michael Conroy, chairman of the board for TransFair USA, this use of the seal is the "most damaging dimension" of [Rainforest Alliance's] agricultural certification program and "a serious blow to the integrity of certification": ...On an episode of Britain's Really Disgusting Food presented by Alex Riley, the comedian questioned the Alliance about its seal of approval for Galaxy chocolate, from 2010, since the product uses palm oil that is sourced through methods destructive of rainforests. The spokesperson replied that the seal of approval was for the cacao used in the product. Critics maintain that the seal will look to consumers like an endorsement of the bar, and not solely the cacao used in its production."

FSC does NOT mean that the paper product comes from recycled trees, though one might get that impression from the way they go on about sustainability and climate and such.  In fact, it means the very opposite.  It is from virgin wood fibre.  From their website: "The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo is your guarantee that the wood and paper products you purchase come from healthy forests and strong communities."  Well, in fact, most trees used for wood and paper come from healthy forests and strong communities. The difference is neither remain as such after you log the place out. A tree farm is not a forest, and planting monospecies that mostly fail after you stick them in the clear cut ground doesn't count as a return to healthy forest. It doesn't keep the soil intact, the ecosystem vibrant, and the communities themselves disintegrate when the plants close up after 30 years of decimation.  I particularly hate this logo.  My father was a tree killer, and we lived in logging towns for most of my young life.  I remember distinctly 2 1/2 of the three lumber mills closed down in one of my hometowns, and a once thriving hub of activity in Northern Sask. was almost abandoned overnight.  Meanwhile, at the same time, those *exact* same companies were publicly applying pressure for major concessions from the BC government to open six new plants there, citing "jobs, jobs, jobs"....  They didn't mention that all those jobs came at the expense of the people in the Saskatchewan communities they had just pulled out of, as well as the environmental devastation that is finally more well-known...

I don't know how these people sleep at night, quite frankly.  They tout "legal" sources, but legal doesn't mean ethical.  It just means compliance from governments. From the Guardian: "[T]he Ugandan government evicted...thousands... from the Mubende and Kiboga districts to make way for the UK-based New Forests Company to plant trees, to earn carbon credits and ultimately to sell the timber....The FSC concluded that 'officials consider Namwasa one of their most peaceful and successful experiences in encouraging illegal encroachers to voluntarily leave central forestry reserves and would like to use the model for controversial areas in the future'."  That's healthy communities and sustainable forests in action, folks.  Or is it the other way around?

If you care at all about extensive logging in Canada and around the world, don't use FSC products if you can find recycled or reused wood and paper products. Me, I avoid new wood at nearly all costs, and I never buy into "carbon credits".

Certified Sustainable Seafood MSC

Another hugely greenwashed label, more used in the States than Canada.  Like Forestry Stewardship, it's the fine print that will get you.  "The MSC — Marine Stewardship Council — says that the "sustainable" label means that fishermen caught the seafood with methods that don't deplete its supply, and help protect the environment in the waters where it was caught... The MSC system has certified most fisheries with "conditions." ..But they have years to comply with those conditions after the fisheries have already been certified sustainable."  Don't just look for third party certified.  Look for a third party certified label you can TRUST.  Any company can make up a shell label and stick it on their products, or pay someone to do so.  Look at their websites, and see what they aren't saying.  If they aren't specifically addressing an issue, it's not usually because they haven't thought about it  They are just hoping you haven't.

Okay, this post kind of got away on me here. There are so many more agencies and logos, but I focused on ones that fellow Canadians and North Americans would most easily spot when shopping. Feel free to let me know of any others you think should be included.  I might even add more myself as I remember or find them...