New Provincial Regulations in British Columbia

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. In 2018, British Columbia (BC) became the fifth province to enact certification regulations for organic products within their borders.

On September 1, 2018, after efforts by the organic sector, BC’s organic regulations came into force under the BC Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act. This means that the term organic is a protected label, and organic food and beverage products which are marketed exclusively within BC now require organic certification. A business may only use the protected label if they hold organic certification through the BC Certified Organic Program (BCCOP) or the Canadian Organic Regime (COR)

How did the legislation get passed?

BC has had voluntary provincial organic standards since 1993 through the Agri-Food Choice and Quality Act and the Organic Agricultural Products Certification Regulation. The voluntary certification was administered by the Organic BC. With support from the Ministry of Agriculture, the organic sector, and consumers, organic certification within BC’s borders became mandatory, and Organic BC continues to administer the certification. 

The Ministry consulted with industry in the spring of 2015 and received feedback through a survey which indicated both positive and negative feelings towards the proposed regulatory system. On the positive side, industry saw provincial regulation as a chance to increase consumer confidence, remove operators who make false organic claims from the competitive marketplace, and level the playing field for farmers who adhere to recognized organic practices. On the negative side, industry was concerned about transitional issues, extra paperwork and additional fees for certification. 

As a result of these concerns, several measures were taken. First, a three-year time period between the initial intentions paper from the province and the enforcement of the regulations ensured a window of time for non-certified operators to transition to certification. The Ministry also helped with the transition period by working with Organic BC on multiple announcements, an awareness campaign targeting growers, and outreach at agriculture shows, conferences, agriculture association events and annual general meetings. Second, to address the paperwork concern, the development of an online organic certification system began in 2016. This user-friendly system, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020, will assist in the administrative workload by allowing producers to submit paperwork online, and save previous years of paperwork. Finally, as a result of the concerns related to certification fees, a low risk certification category is included within the regulations. 

What do British Columbia’s regulations say?

Organic operators in BC need to certify their products through a certifying body that is a member of Organic BC or through one of the federally-accredited certification bodies. Organic products in BC may bear either or both the BC Certified Organic Checkmark logo and the Canada Organic logo so long as the product contains 95% or more certified organic ingredients.

There are three types of organic certification services available in BC. The first is certification to the Canada Organic Regime which is administered by federally accredited certification bodies. This level of certification is necessary for goods traded interprovincially and internationally. The second type is Regional Certification, which is appropriate for operators who require intra-provincial certification, and is administered by regionally accredited certifying bodies. The final type is Low Risk Certification, which falls under the Regional Certification, but serves smaller scale producers. If an operation is assessed as being low risk, the frequency of inspections is reduced to once every 3-years, allowing the producer to realize some savings. However, paperwork must still be completed every year for low-risk producers. All organic products certified under the regional or low risk programs are produced according to the Canadian Organic Standards. 

There are two types of certifying bodies in BC: Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) federally accredited certifying bodies and Organic BC regionally accredited certifying bodies. Both types of agencies can certify products to the British Columbia Certified Organic Program (BCCOP) while the CFIA accredited agencies can also certify to the Canada Organic Regime (COR). The types of certifications and associated certifying bodies are laid out in the table below. 

Organic Certification in British Columbia

COR CertificationRegional Certification Low-Risk Regional Certification 
Meets the Canadian Organic StandardsYes Yes Yes 
Type of Certifying Body (CB)CFIA accredited CBOrganic BC
accredited CB 
Organic BC accredited CB 
*Note: not all Organic BC CBs offer low-risk certification
Where can the product be sold? AnywhereOnly in BC Only in BC 
Frequency of inspectionYearly Yearly Every 3 years 
Frequency of paperworkYearly Yearly Yearly 
Logos Available for Use

The organic certification regulations in BC extend to farmers’ markets, farm gate sales and retail stores. Retail was included in the regulations as a result of concerns about fairness from smaller scale producers. There is a diversity of small producers in BC competing against bigger retailers who, before the regulations came into force, were not required to seek certification. Within the regulations, retailers are required to have organic certification for any products they process and that are marketed with an organic claim. 

However, retailers are able to make organic claims on products without having certification so long as:

  • the organic products have been certified by a producer or processor earlier in the supply chain; 
  • the organic integrity of the product is not compromised; 
  • and the retailer has not processed the organic ingredients. 

Whether a retailer does or does not need to certify depends on the scenario. For example, retail certification is required if “a retail store takes organic certified blueberries and organic certified yogurt and makes a parfait”, but retail certification is not required if “a retail store takes a shipment of certified organic apples and places it in an open produce bin in the store”. 

A fruit parfait produced by a store does require retail certification.

Organic apples placed in a produce bin do not require retail certification.

How are the regulations enforced?

The regulations follow a complaints based, ministry led enforcement system. Complaints are filed through AgriServiceBC (which also handles topics such as food processing, aquaculture, and fishery licensing) and then followed up by an Organic BC enforcement officer. The enforcement officer is empowered to issue administrative fees of up to $350. Under this system, BC also follows a graduated enforcement approach, which means that the province is focused on bringing businesses and individuals into compliance through education and warnings. However, uncertified operators marketing their food or beverage products as “organic” do face possible penalties. 

Apart from administrative fees which are issued by an enforcement officer, an individual who commits an offence under the Act may face legal action and is liable to a maximum fine of $5,000 for each day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues, and imprisonment for no more than 6 months. A corporation that commits an offence under the Act is liable to a maximum fine of $20,000 for each day or part of a day on which the offence occurs or continues. 

Have there been any complaints?

Since the Act came into force 11 months ago, AgriServiceBC has received 17 complaints. Before regulations were in place, there had been roughly 100 complaints on businesses labelling and selling products within BC as organic without certification. However, due to the lack of provincial regulation at that time, those complaints could not be investigated. After the regulations came into force, those 100 businesses who had complaints against them were contacted, and most of the businesses have now come into compliance.

Lessons for Ontario

The Government of Ontario has not yet enacted provincial organic regulations and should follow in the steps of provinces such as British Columbia, which have closed 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. 

If the Bill passed, the Act would require regulations that would ensure that food labelled as organic meets the federal regulations and standards. OCO would like to see the Ontario Government at a minimum adopt regulations that meet the Canada Organic Standards. The current proposed legislation in Ontario meets these Standards and would work on an easy-to-enforce, complaints-based system, rather than a proactive one. As such, the resources required for enforcement would be minimal. 

Due to BC’s history of voluntary provincial certification through Organic BC, they were able to go beyond the federal organic regulations to create regional and low-risk certifications. The language in Bill 54 allows Ontario to learn from BC and implement a made-in-Ontario approach to organic regulations. The following takeaways from the BC organic regulations could be beneficial to Ontario and would be included in OCO’s ideal provincial regulation. However, they are not vital to the creation and implementation of organic regulations in Ontario. 

First, Ontario can learn from the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s creation of a full time Organic Specialist within AgriServiceBC. This role has proven beneficial to the process of creating and implementing mandatory provincial organic regulations.

Second, Ontario can learn from BC’s regional and low-risk certifications. Small-scale farming is present in Ontario as well, and OCO has been advocating for certification subsidies and/or transitional supports for small-scale operations, new entrants and diversified farms. OCO would also like to see the inclusion of a small scale certification process that is less onerous for low-risk small scale and/or direct marketing farms.

The BC Organic Checkmark can be used by all three types of BC certification and has been around since before mandatory provincial certification. The Checkmark, which is now given out by certifying bodies, has been a successful marketing campaign and has gained consumer recognition province-wide. Ontario has a local organic brand through Foodland Ontario. However, this brand can only be used by operators who are COR certified and is less well-known and promoted. This may be because unlike in BC, the organic Foodland label cannot be given out by certifying bodies, and businesses must separately apply for the label through Foodland. 

Finally, Ontario can learn from BC’s process of writing the regulations. The regulations in BC were originally written without consultation from the sector. Because of this, a regulation rewrite is underway. This rewrite will include more consultation to balance conflicting opinions within the sector. Consultation will allow the organic sector to be more engaged with the process and the resulting regulations. 

Learn more about OCO’s ideal provincial regulations and how you can help further organic regulation in Ontario!

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