New Provincial Organic Regulations in Alberta

Did you know that the federal organic regulations are only enforced on products that are sold interprovincially? That means that unless a province has created its own organic regulations, products which are not necessarily certified organic could be labelled organic without any consequence. Recently, Alberta became the sixth province to pass legislation mandating certification for organic products within their borders. 

New legislation in Alberta aligns with federal organic regulations to ensure that products labeled as organic are actually certified as organic. As of April 1, 2019, any product sold or labelled as organic within Alberta must be certified organic under the Supporting Alberta’s Local Food Sector Act (SALFSA). The provisions of this Act require that any Alberta-made product labelled as ‘organic’ meets federal certification requirements outlined in the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations. This Act closed a regulatory gap for organic products produced, processed, marketed and sold exclusively in Alberta.

How did the new legislation get passed? 

SALFSA has ‘local food’ in its title, but it also focuses on organic products. The Act established a local food week and local food council, but the majority of the legislation centres on certification of organic products within Alberta. It was created because the Alberta Premier at the time, Rachel Notley, and the Agriculture and Forestry Minister, Oneil Carlier, were interested in raising the profile of the local food industry. At the same time, organic advocates such as Organic Alberta, were looking for a place to house provincial organic regulations. The Local Food Sector Act turned out to be the right fit.

The Act was passed on June 11, 2018 and went into force on April 1, 2019. This period of time allowed businesses to adapt to the new regulations. The Province created the new regulations so that they aligned with the federal Canadian Organic Regulations (COR) in order to keep the transition process as simple as possible.

Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier (middle) introducing the SALFSA in 2018. 

What do Alberta’s regulations say? 

Once the Act came into force, any uncertified producers and processors who had previously been marketing and selling products as organic within Alberta had to pursue certification to continue those claims. Producers and processors who were already certified did not have to take any additional steps to market or sell their products as organic in Alberta.

In order to become certified as organic in Alberta, producers and processors must first submit an application to a federally accredited certifying body (CB). The CB will acknowledge the application, an inspector will conduct a site visit, and the files will be reviewed. The CB will then issue a letter granting or denying certification. More information on the federal certification process can be found here

As mentioned above, the Province aimed to keep regulations as simple as possible by not deviating from the COR. Consequently, specific regulations regarding certification of retail outlets were not included. Alberta’s intent was not to be burdensome to businesses, so while the government is encouraging retail outlets to comply with the COR, they are not actively enforcing regulations on retail. The provincial government instead is focusing on education, and is working with the Canadian Organic Trade Association to create retail training materials.   

How are the regulations enforced? 

A formal enforcement process has been established in Alberta. The enforcement system is complaints-based and compliance-based. This means that the province’s focus is on helping producers and processors comply with the new regulations, instead of imposing onerous fees for first offences. 

Complaints are directed to the organic sector development officer within the Alberta government. The first complaint is handled by this officer, who will work with the business to help them into compliance. If a second complaint occurs, the officer will outsource the investigation to an inspector who may need to conduct site visits. The investigation could lead to legal action and fines. If it gets to that point, the legislation states that individuals can face a maximum fine of $5,000 and corporations can face a maximum fine of $20,000. No complaints have been filed in Alberta since the new regulations have come into force. 

Have the regulations had an impact? 

The new regulations have brought awareness to the need for certification, especially in farmers’ markets. The Act was passed on June 11, 2018, but did not go into force until April 1, 2019. This time period allowed individuals and businesses to either certify or to stop using the term organic. The provincial government found that once businesses at farmers’ markets realized the change was occurring, they stopped using the term organic if they were not certified.

Consumers of local organic food in Alberta can now be confident that products labelled as organic are actually certified as organic. Organic Alberta is working on a consumer focused interactive education campaign called “Get the Facts” to clear up any misconceptions about organic food in Alberta. They will be creating articles and videos to educate consumers on organic agriculture and the new provincial legislation.

Lessons for Ontario

The Government of Ontario has not enacted provincial organic regulations and should follow in the steps of Alberta to close the regulatory gap. Currently, Ontario does have a proposed Organic Products Act, 2018 (Bill 54) which, if enacted, would bring organic regulation to the Province. Bill 54 was introduced on November 12, 2018 by PC MPP Jim McDonnell. It passed second reading and is now sitting in the Committee of the Whole House. The Bill was developed in partnership with OCO. 

Beyond passing this Bill, OCO would like the Government of Ontario to produce and implement regulations to ensure that food labelled as organic at a minimum meets the federal regulations, similar to the legislation that was enacted in Alberta. Ontario can learn a lot from the implementation of Alberta’s new regulations, such as applying a low-cost complaints based enforcement system and allowing businesses a period of time before the regulations come into force to adjust to the new regulations. While we would like to see the same type of legislation enacted in Ontario, OCO is also open to the possibility of creating a small-scale program and opening the scope of the regulations. 

So what would an ideal provincial regulation include in Ontario? First, small-scale organic growing exists in Ontario in a way that it does not in Alberta. In 2016, the average farm size in Alberta was 1,237 acres, while in Ontario it was 249 acres. Therefore, OCO is advocating for certification subsidies and/or transitional supports for small-scale operations, new entrants and diversified farms. It would also be ideal to include a small scale certification process that is less onerous for low-risk small scale and/or direct marketing farms. Second, OCO would like to see the inclusion of other categories of products within the COR (such as textiles and body care products). To achieve this, OCO is advocating for the inclusion of these products within Ontario as a pilot. Finally, while Ontario would like to opt for a low-cost complaints-based enforcement system as Alberta did, OCO would also like to see the inclusion of flexible enforcement options, such as administrative penalties. 

Learn more about how you can help further organic regulation in Ontario!

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