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Organic Certification in Canada

In Canada, legislation exists for the certification of agriculture and food products marketed as organic, entitled the Organic Products Regulations (OPR).
Under the OPR, the Canada Organic Regime maintains oversight on goods traded across provincial or international borders, and all goods bearing the Canada Organic Logo.

In BC products can display the British Columbia Certified Organic checkmark if the product is certified organic by a COABC accredited certifier. The British Columbia Certified Organic Program is a voluntary agri-food quality program administered by the Certified Organic Associations of BC (COABC) and is open to any resident or business operating in the province that complies with the program requirements.

What is organic farming?

Organic farming is farming according to a philosophy and set of guidelines that strives to work with natural processes rather than synthetic inputs. Its goal is to improve the health of the soil, the plants and the animals, as well as the farmer and the eater. For an organic farmer's perspective, see What is Organic Farming? presentation given by Ted Zettel in 2011 at an Organic Council of Ontario meeting; or read COABC's What is Organic Farming? pamphlet.

How does a product become certified?


If new applicants want to obtain Canada Organic status for agricultural products, they must apply to a CFIA-accredited certification body at least 12-15 months before the date on which the product is expected to be marketed. But for the products to qualify for organic status, applicants must be able to substantiate that organic management was employed the previous 24 months as the land needs a minimum 36 months of transition since the last application of a prohibited material.

COABC regional certification bodies adhere to the same transition requirements but may not require as much lead time as ISO accredited certifiers when handling new applicants.

Livestock Products:

The transition requirements for livestock can be done simultaneously with the transition of the land, but no transitioned animal ever qualifies for organic slaughter. For meat production, if conventional or transitional livestock are managed organically from the start of their third trimester of gestation, then the offspring are eligible for organic slaughter. Unless born on an organic farm, dairy animals have to be raised organically for a year before milk and other milk products can be sold as organic. Meat birds must be under organic management beginning no later than the second day of life and may have only received approved vaccines up to that point. Pullets may transition with the landbase, but they must comply with the meat bird requirements if they are eventually sold as meat.

Other Products:

Sprouts, mushrooms, greenhouse products, and processed food products can be certified once all applicable standards have been satisfied.

For British Columbia Certified Organic (BCCO) status, application must be made to a COABC-accredited certification body. Those certification bodies identified on this COABC list as ISO can also award Canada Organic status, while those listed as 'Regional' may only grant BCCO status.

Selecting a certifier

Talking to other organic operators to find out what their experience has been, is a good first step, but it is critical to know your markets (domestic, European Union, Japan, etc.) and identify which certifying bodies can assure access to those markets.

For products traded exclusively within BC, consider a COABC regionally-accredited certifier. For products, including ingredients, destined to cross borders, a CFIA-ISO accredited certification body is required. Consider a COABC based certifier who is CFIA-ISO accredited. For certification bodies based outside BC, refer to the CFIA-ISO accredited certification body list.

With that information in hand, contact a few different certifying bodies to compare programs. Certifying bodies differ substantially in the services that they provide, their delivery styles, and in their pricing structures.

Steps to certification

The annual certification procedure is the same for all certification bodies (CBs)

Operator completes application form and submits with fees to their chosen CB
CB's Certification Committee (CC) reviews application and supplies feedback to operator
A qualified Verification Officer (VO) is assigned
VO inspects operation and submits report
CC reviews file to determine status
CB provides operator with certification decision
If there are no outstanding issues If there are outstanding issues
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CB presents the Status Certificate Operator addresses outstanding issues

Once the outstanding issues are deemed resolved the CB presents the Status Certificate

The Canadian Organic Growers (COG) has outlined the process for various sectors: Farmers, Processors, and Importers/Exporters.

For more detailed instructions, contact the certification body of your choice.

Resources to assure transition success

Excellent information is provided in COABC's answers to some FAQs. More in-depth overviews include Transition to Organic Farming by OMAFRA, New Brunswick's 2006 - Steps to a Successful Organic Transition and COG's Transitioning to Certified Organic Farming.

The Rodale Institute has a free online course you can sign up for, ACORN has a detailed Organic Path you can follow. The Organic Trade Association also has an extensive online collection of Pathway to Organic resources for both producers and processors. You may want to purchase the following COG manual Gaining Ground: Making a Successful Transition to Organic Farming.

For livestock operations consider reading Manitoba's 2012 Organic Livestock Production and COABC's Organic Dairy Farming in Canada FAQs.

Canadian Organic Standards

The certification standards for organic agricultural products intended for human and livestock consumption sold in Canada are found in two volumes. Reading the principles and management standards is pivotal to understanding the Permitted Substances Lists.

Standards Interpretation Committee decisions

The Canadian Organic Office (COO), in collaboration with the organic sector, has created an advisory body; the Standards Interpretation Committee (SIC), to generate official interpretations of the Canadian Organic Standards.

Information about the committee and how it functions
Questions and Answers - Canadian National standards for Organic agriculture. Downloadable version available courtesy of the Organic Federation of Canada.
• There is a 60-day comment period for newly-proposed SIC Questions and Answers. To receive the drafts, sign up for the CanReg Listserve, a cross-country information sharing service. Click here to subscribe and here to remove yourself from the CanReg Listserve.

Tools to Help with Certification documentation

Many certification bodies provide documentation templates, but having records that serve both your business and certification needs are ideal. If interested in electronic record keeping read Chris Bodnar's 2013 in-depth review of Software Tools for the Small Farm in the BC Organic Grower magazine (Vol16N3).

Check out Rowena Hopkins and Roxanne Beavers' 2008 Record Keeping for Streamlined Certification and Farmer Sanity, or buy a copy of Record Keeping for Organic Growers by these two authors from COG, and download the templates from / Lastly there is Tracy Lundberg-Schimpf's 2004 A Tracking System for Organic Farmers.

The National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service, also has record-keeping forms for crops and livestock. All of these can be found in Documentation Forms for Organic Crop and Livestock Producers. Care must be taken when using this USA resource as there are differences in organic requirements between the US and Canada.

The difference between the Permitted Substances Lists and brand name products

One of the most challenging tasks in organic certification is determining whether or not a commercial brand name product is allowed as the CAN/CGSB 32.311 Permitted Substances Lists (PSL) only identifies generic substances that can be used with or without restrictions. At this time neither Canada nor the USA have a unified national brand name directory, making it difficult to readily know if a brand name input or ingredient is allowed.

Some certifiers maintain their own brand name product databases if an input is acceptable or not. Be sure to ask your certification body if they maintain one. There are some third party lists that operators may use as references, but your own certifier is the final authority. Therefore always secure approval from your certification body before using any input as using non-permitted substances and input products will jeopardize your ability to certify your product.

You also have the option to ask your own certification body to review the product documentation you have secured from the supplier. Sometimes such work is unsuccessful as full disclosure is necessary and suppliers are not always willing to share sufficient details.

Current third party brand name resources:

The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) recently launched an OMRI Canadian Pilot Program building on its American OMRI Listed success. Products compliant to the Canada Organic Standard that apply to OMRI for Canada status will be identified as such and listed on the new OMRI Canada Products Lists. Certification bodies are the final authorities for input approval. Check with them, even if a product is OMRI Canada Listed.

Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) - Directory of Organic Inputs (July 2012/pdf) is a compilation of products commonly seen in use on organic farms in Atlantic Canada. The directory identifies which certification body, if any, have done a review and have given their approval. Do note OMRI is listed but this directory was complied before the launch of the OMRI Canada program.

The Centre D'expertise et de Transfert en Agriculture Biologique et de Proximité of Québec also has a compilation brand name list.

The Canadian Directory of Brand Name Inputs Allowed in Organic Agriculture sponsored by the Organic Federation of Canada is also a compilation that may help identify permitted brand name products. Operators must practice due diligence.

Confused? Not sure how to tell what is organic or not?

If your answer is yes, read this American-based review Small Organic Farms & Local Markets - How to Assess Organic Compliance: A Tool for Market Growers, Market Managers, Produce Buyers, Extension Agents, and Others for some excellent insights. This resource has some discrepancies with the Canadian context (e.g. there is no small farm exemption in the Canadian Organic Product Regulation, etc.), but the OPR only impacts goods that cross provincial borders and products bear the COR logo.

For more information, contact your local certifying body or, for BC, email Susan L. Smith at the BC Ministry of Agriculture.

Elsewhere on this site

Pertinent Federal (Canadian) & Provincial (BC) Regulations
Organic Dairy Farming in Canada
Farm Equipment
Marketing Your Product
Organic Prices (fruit and vegetables)
Small Scale Food Processing
Pest Management
Soil (Canada, USA) and Water (BC, Alberta) Testing Labs & Services

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