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An Overview of the Definition, Certification, Verification and Control of

Organic and Natural Foods in Canada and With Our Main Trading Partners


Rod MacRae, Alison Bentley and Stuart B. Hill Ecological Agriculture Projects , Macdonald College of McGill University Ste-Anne de Bellevue, Quebec

(A report to the Canadian Agricultural Research Council ad hoc committee on Natural and Organic Foods, October 31, 1989)


Executive Summary

1. The Canadian Agricultural Research Council (CARC) has established an ad hoc sub-committee on natural and organic foods to investigate possible actions to regulate the use of the terms natural and organic. The study team has been asked to provide background information on definitions, certification, verification and control of these terms in Canada and other jurisdictions. (Section 1.0)

2. The term organic has been widely used since the 1940s to describe food production systems and their produce. These systems have evolved to achieve one or more of the following overlapping goals: food self-reliance; resource conservation and environmental protection; and the sustaining of rural communities. In the broad agricultural community, the term organic is often incorrectly understood to have the same sense as that used in organic chemistry. (Section 2.1)

3. A number of definitions of organic are already in use. They can be placed in three general categories: those that focus on what products are not permitted in organic production; those that focus on the products and practices that substitute for prohibited products; and those that emphasize the design of the farm, the goal of ensuring food quality, and how production is synchronized with ecological processes. Each category of definition has advantages and disadvantages with regard to regulation and labelling. A number of private and public agencies have also defined transitional organic, which is used to describe farming systems that are moving, in a planned way, towards organic production but have not completed the transition process. (Sections 2.1 and 2.2)

4. The term natural was originally associated with the counterculture. It has since been adopted by most major food corporations, and this has contributed to substantial public confusion regarding its meaning. There is widespread agreement that the term is confined to processing, in contrast to organic which also focuses on production. Minimal processing and the absence of synthetic ingredients and additives are the generally recognized criteria for use of the term, but much disagreement exists on the meaning of minimal processing. More work needs to be done on the term's meaning if it is to be accessible to regulation. (Section 2.3)

5. The term residue-free is being used, incorrectly, to describe a system of testing for the detection of a limited number of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables. A grower who is certified as having "no detectable residues" has followed a production program to reduce pesticide use, but is not necessarily using other environmentally-sound production practices. (Section 2.4.2)

6. Organic certification programs have been in existence since the late 1970s. Early program organizers had seen how the term natural had lost its meaning in the marketplace and wished to avoid a similar fate for the term organic. Successful programs establish standards, and certification, verification and control procedures. Standards are based on the principles of agroecology, although a number of factors, such as the state of the regional farm economy, and different schools of thought in organic production, can lead to regional differences. Most standards, however, are based on guidelines prepared by two international agencies, the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). This ensures a basic consistency in the standards from one location to another. (Section 3.1.1)

7. There are differences in verification and control procedures. Six models are used: farmer association, public interest, corporate, professional chapter, licensee / franchise, and government. The principal concern is that each system have independent, third party certification, including independent inspection, a certification committee that is not compromised by commercial interests, and controls over the use of its mark. The corporate and licensee / franchise models are thought by many to be insufficently independent. Many agencies using a corporate model are now joining more independent programs. (Section 3.1.1)

8. No private or public independent agencies have developed comprehensive standards and verification systems for the term natural. Some private companies have their own standards or protocols but these are not verified by an independent organization. (Section 3.1.3)

9. The Canadian government published a definition of organic in December of 1988, and is providing funding to OFPANA to help the organic food industry develop market opportunities. A number of other federal initiatives, however, are blocking the development of an organic food industry. These include the absence of a legal definition, marketing board rules, and limited access to credit and crop insurance. (Section 4.1.1)

10. British Columbia, Manitoba and Qu{bec are all developing systems to control the use of the term organic, in consultation with the organic food industry. (Section 4.1.2)

11. The US Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and Federal Trade Commission do not regulate the term organic, although initiatives are underway in the USDA and FDA to do so. There exist some federal controls on the use of the term natural, especially with regard to meat. The absence of a US federal definition of organic food is restricting interstate and international trade of certain products. (Section 4.2.1)

12. Four USA states (Colorado, New Hampshire, Texas, Washington) have state-run certification programs. Eleven others have regulations to control the use of that term. In those states, the certification process is carried out cooperatively with private certification agencies. Minnesota, for example contracts with a certification agency to do the standard setting and verification work. Most of these states have legal definitions of the term organic, and some provide minimal standards for production. Others support financially a private agency's standards. Some have fines for violations and provide financing for enforcement. At least 6 other states are presently considering developing comprehensive regulations. (Section 4.2.2)

13. The EEC is in the final stages of preparing a regulation on organic food and farming that will facilitate the flow of organic foods within the EEC. The regulation has been developed with the assistance of IFOAM. Its existence will likely force non-EEC states to develop regulations consistent with the EEC regulation if those external states, including Canada, wish to export organic products to the European market. (Section 4.3.1)

14. Of the EEC member states, Denmark, France, The Netherlands, and the UK are the most involved in protecting the term organic in the marketplace. Denmark works closely with a certification agency to provide subsidies to converting farmers, and ensure the integrity of the certification process. France requires certification agencies to register with a commission responsible for evaluating the quality of certification programs. The Netherlands helps fund the costs of a private certification program The UK has established the United Kingdom Registry of Organic Foods Standards (UKROFS) to register certification agencies, but also to provide certification for producers who do not belong to a private agency. (Section 4.3.2)

15. Of the non-EEC European states, Sweden provides the most support to organic producers, including subsidies for converting farmers, and funding for the principal certification agency. (Section 4.3.3)

16. Two Australian states are supporting the development of an organic farming sector, but are not involved in controlling the use of the term in any signiciant way. The federal government is not involved. In New Zealand, the federal government works cooperatively with the country's major certification group to improve the quality of the agency's certification program. (Sections 4.4 and 4.5)

17. Japan does not have a certification system because most organic produce is direct marketed to consumers or consumer associations. Consumers often help make decisions, so they are very familiar with an organic producer's practices. As a result, export or import of organic produce is limited. (Section 4.6)

18. Three LDCs are supporting the development of organic agriculture. Burkina Faso and Nicaragua view organic agriculture as an integral part of their agricultural development strategy. Guatemala is interested in organic primarily as a marketing opportunity. Organic produce is being exported from approximately 20 LDCs. Most of the certification and verification work is being performed by North American and European private certification agencies. (Section 4.7)

19. A number of international organizations, such as UNICERT and the International Organic Trade Association, facilitate the upgrading of certification and verification procedures, and trade in organic goods. Global harmonization of the organic foods industry is underway through the accreditation and evaluation of certification programs, and through the development of reciprocity agreements between different agencies. The independence of the inspection process is being strengthened by the existence of an international body of trained inspectors. (Section 4.7)

20. The term organic is better defined and understood than the term natural. The potential for environmental improvements are also greater with the term organic. The organic food industry has comprehensive standards and verification procedures which the natural foods industry lacks. (Sections 3.2 and 5.0)

21. The organic foods industry has made great strides in the past three years to improve both the quality of the certification programs, and their ability to control food quality and fraud. The general view of the industry is that it can control the use of the term organic amongst producers and processors who participate in certification programs. It is unable to control, in the absence of a legal framework, the use of the term organic by those who do not participate in a program. The most successful control of the term organic arises when private agencies and government jurisdictions work cooperatively to implement a program with definition, standards, verification, certification and control mechanisms. Generally, the government takes responsibility for creating a legal frawework for certification and for providing enforcement of the regulations. A private certification agency is given responsibility for standard setting, inspection and verification. (Section 5.0)


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