Food Fraud and Organics
Food Fraud and Organics | I received a call from a CBC producer on Thursday afternoon to see if I was willing/interested in being interviewed on a story relating to of a whistleblower spilling the beans on a company passing conventional chicken being passed as organic. The interviews were going to be on syndicate radio that essentially means speaking on local radio stations across Canada (truly from PEI to Regina). I was thinking how to approach the story as it could be sour grapes from the whistleblower who afterall had been dismissed from her position 2-3 months after the attempted organic fraud. One could argue that if she was outraged by the mislabeling she would have gone directly to the resident CFIA inspector. However, it was more likely that she knew going against the management would not prove a good career choice. Still the act of blocking the shipment of the conventional/organic combo reportedly the reason the management did dismiss her a few months later. Ironically the dismissed worker probably saved the company given that if the mislabeled product had been distributed the owner would have been faced with a $5m fine along with possible criminal prosecution (if the Safe Foods for Canadian Act was followed). In any event, one can predict the company will compensate the ex-employee and the truth will remain with the worker and company.
Aside from the issue if whistleblower protection, the story did bring up the issue relating to how easy it can be to pass conventional foods off for organic. The financial benefits are obvious given the premium price paid for organic foods. After a little research there were some alarming stories of conventional eggs being passed for organic and the story of a BC bakery using normal flour to bake organic bread. The incidence were not small and involved millions of dollars. So one would suspect that fraud on this scale would have been passed as criminal fraud and prosecution. In the end those involved had their organic certification suspended but then reinstated. A similar case in the US resulted in the owner being fined $500, 000 with two years behind bars. So we can take this as a case that food fraud in Canada is a relatively low risk activity. Yet, it would be wrong to suggest that organic farmers within Canada are out to dupe the public. I would say 99.9% of organic farmers are totally dedicated to delivering on their promise to follow the regulations to the letter. However, one would question how much fraud goes on at the processing level and even at retail it is so easy to put conventional produce in the organic section – A tomato is a tomato after all. The extent, or even if this occurs is open to speculation but opens up the further question of food fraud. We do know that food fraud is rampant in the seafood sector with over 30% being mislabeled. Does this matter given that if the consumer dosent notice then no harm done. Similar to organic, if the consumer thinks its organic then all is well given there is no added food safety risk or difference in nutrition content compared to conventional. The obvious answer is yes that it does matter given that the consumer pays the premium for organic foods. My comment in the interview was more along the lines let people enjoy organics if it makes them happy. I still standby this view given the lack of actual nutritional benefits derived from organics. In terms of the economics, we can look at a diverse range of commodities with outrageous markups- water and cheese being two.
After one interview the radio presenter mentioned that the comments made would stirrup a hornet’s nest of trouble. Interestingly, the comments returned did not focus on the nutrition or safety of organics over conventional but aspects of environmental sustainability and animal welfare. However, even here organic production comes under the spotlight. Pesticides (non-synthetic) can be used in organic production and typically require a higher concentration with more applications. One comment suggested that the natural pesticides have no side effects and are selective for the bad bugs – how wrong could they be. In animal welfare, I read that an organic chicken farm in the US provides a small skylight on the side of the housing so a few rays of sunlight can enter. This is all what is needed to constitute access to the outside under the organic standards. I could go on about how open to infection animals are in the absence of antibiotics but that is another story. In the end the interviews were complete and sure the story will sail into the background. Still the big issues of whistleblower protection and food fraud will need to be addressed sooner than later.