Canada Organic vs. USDA Organic

Have you ever noticed a USDA Organic Seal on your produce in a Canadian store and wondered if it was held to the same standards as the Canada Organic Label? If so, the answer is yes. Since 2009, Canada and the United States have had an arrangement, known as the United States-Canada Organic Equivalence Arrangement (USCOEA), which recognizes our national organic systems as equivalent.

Hydroponic production methods cannot be used for organic production in Canada.

Most organic products are considered equivalent under the scope of the USCOEA. However, since organic standards differ between our two countries, there are certain exclusions. For example, any agricultural product from Canada which was derived from an animal treated with antibiotics cannot be labeled or sold as organic in the US, even if it is considered organic in Canada. Conversely, any products that are produced in the US by hydroponic or aeroponic production methods, with the use of sodium nitrate, or derived from non-ruminant animals which are not in accordance with the livestock stocking rates set out in Canada’s Organic Standards, cannot be sold or labeled as organic in Canada. In addition, products that are produced through aquaculture are not under the scope of the USCOEA. These products are excluded from the equivalency agreement due to different organic standards in each of the countries. The tables below further explore the exclusions and points of contention between the two countries.

Not allowed to be labeled or sold as organic in the US:

AntibioticsThe widespread use of antibiotics on healthy animals for growth promotion or disease prevention lowers their effectiveness in helping to treat human illness. In the US, antibiotics are completely prohibited from use in organic products. However, this has led to some animal welfare concerns in cases where treatment might be refused to sick animals by farmers wishing to maintain organic status. 
Canada’s organic regulations also prohibit the use of non-therapeutic and growth promoting antibiotics, however the medical use of these substances on sick or injured livestock is allowed, but tightly restricted. Animals and animal products that have received antibiotic treatment are not allowed to be sold as organic. In the case of dairy, the Canadian organic community decided that allowing very restricted antibiotic use for dairy cattle would be more humane than prohibiting it completely, which, in some cases, may lead to stressed and/or culled animals. If dairy cows have to be treated with antibiotics, their milk cannot be marketed as organic or fed to organic calves during treatment. They must have a withdrawal period from the antibiotics of at least 30 days or twice the label requirement, whichever is longer, before their milk can be used again.
This exemption does not have a major impact on trade since Canada is not a large exporter of dairy products. Milk and dairy production’s purpose in Canada is to meet domestic requirements and exports usually only include cheese, skim milk powder and whey products. 
AquacultureIn 2019, Canada introduced new aquaculture regulations and standards which allow the certification of organic aquaculture products. Organic aquaculture came about as a result of the demand for organic seafood. Currently, organic aquaculture products are not within the scope of Canada’s equivalency arrangement with the US. The USDA does not currently certify organic aquaculture production, but is in the process of developing organic practice standards for aquaculture. Future assessments and negotiations will be carried out before any potential inclusion of aquaculture products.

Not allowed to be labeled or sold as organic in Canada:

Hydroponics and AeroponicsHydroponic and aeroponic production systems broadly refer to production methods that do not use soil for crop production. Canadian organic standards broadly speaking do not allow these systems because organic farming practices include soil improvement and biodiversity conservation, and these systems do not use soil at all. However, Canada does allow container and greenhouse growing provided a minimum soil requirement is met. 
Hydroponics and aeroponics are currently allowed by the USDA in organic agriculture.
Chilean nitrateChilean (sodium) nitrate, which is a mined product from a desert in Northern Chile, is often used as a nitrogen fertilizer. However, it has been shown to have detrimental effects on human health and soil health. Chilean nitrate is a prohibited substance in Canadian organic farming, but the USDA allows for the use of Chilean nitrate so long as it is not used for more than 20% of the crops total nitrogen needs.
Livestock stocking rates for non-ruminant animals Any products derived from non-ruminant animals (e.g. poultry and pigs) which are not in accordance with the livestock stocking rates set out in Canada’s Organic Standards, cannot be sold or labeled as organic in Canada. 
Stocking rates refer to the number of animals on a given amount of land over a certain period of time. In the Canadian organic system, livestock are provided with living conditions which promote good health, reduce animal stress and prevent disease. This includes organic standards which stipulate stocking rates for laying hens, meat birds, cattle and pigs.
The USDA does not have specific stocking rates within their organic regulations. In 2017, the USDA rejected more stringent rules for animal treatment, which would have established minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry as well as definitions for “stocking densities”. This rejected ruling would have brought greater clarity and consistency to organic livestock production and certification in the US. 

Differing Legal Frameworks 

The reason for these conflicting organic standards in the US and Canada may be connected to the different legal frameworks in each country. In Canada, the organic standards are developed and voted on by farmers and industry representatives through the Canadian General Standards Board’s Committee on Organic Agriculture. The standards are required to be reviewed every five years to ensure that they remain consistently valid and applicable, reflect recent industry developments and are comparable to the organic standards of Canada’s major trading partners. These standards are then enforced at the federal level by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) through third party certification bodies.

In the US, organic standards are set and enforced by the federal government through the National Organic Program (NOP). This program develops the rules and regulations for all USDA (US Department of Agriculture) organic products. The process of standard setting in the US involves input from the National Organic Standards Board (a Federal Advisory Committee made up of industry experts), but unlike Canada, this board does not have voting power. This lack of voting power means that stakeholders in the US organic sector have less control over the standards. For example, the National Organic Standards Board has recommended that Chilean Nitrate be a prohibited substance, but it remains on the National List of approved substances. The Board has also voted to prohibit aeroponic production systems within organic agriculture, but the USDA still allows its use. 

Organic Imports and Exports – Third Countries

Under the USCOEA, importers and exporters of organic goods must produce a statement of attestation. The Canadian Organic Office and the NOP have both agreed that products should be identified as meeting the terms of the arrangement through the following statement: “Certified in compliance with the terms of the US-Canada Organic Equivalency Arrangement”. This statement must appear on documentation travelling with a shipment. The attestation can be included on the organic certificate, the transaction certificate, the purchase order, or other documentation. 

In some cases, an organic import may have originated in a country other than the US or Canada. The USCOEA is the only equivalency arrangement in Canada that covers third-country imports. This means that if a product is imported from a third country that does not have an equivalency arrangement (such as India), the only way that that product can be sold as organic into Canada is if the product is certified according to the Canada Organic Regime (COR) or the US National Organic Program (NOP). The table below lays out the different scenarios for organic imports under this arrangement. 

Import/Export Scenarios:

Country of OriginImported to Certification Requirements for Imports (so long as they meet the requirements of the USCOEA)
CanadaUSCOR certified
USCanadaNOP certified
Country without an equivalency arrangementDirect to US NOP certified or COR certified 
Country without an equivalency arrangementDirect to CanadaNOP certified or COR certified 
Country without an equivalency arrangementTo Canada through USNOP certified or COR certified 
Country without an equivalency arrangementTo US through CanadaNOP certified  or COR certified

Labeling

So what does all of this mean when a consumer sees an organic label in the supermarket? Under the USCOEA, the use of either the USDA Organic Seal or the Canada Organic Logo is permitted in both countries provided the organic content of the product is 95% or greater, and within the scope of the arrangement. Therefore, when purchasing organic products in Canada, you can look for either the USDA Organic Seal or the Canada Organic Label, and be sure that the product meets the same standards. Below are the two logos to watch out for when shopping. The use of the logos is voluntary, but the label must include at a minimum the name of the certifying body. Also included in the table below are some examples of USDA and CFIA accredited certifying body logos. 

 Canada Organic Logo  USDA Organic Seal
 
In Canada, the Organic Logo is permitted on products that have an organic content greater or equal to 95% and has been certified according to the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime. In addition, the name of the certification body must appear on the label and imported products must be identified as such.The USDA Organic Seal differs in that it allows for two different categories of organic labels. Organic products with the seal can be labeled “100% organic” if there are 100% certified organic ingredients, or simply “organic” if there are 95% certified organic ingredients.
Examples of Certifying Body Logos
See the CFIA’s full list of certification bodies accredited in Canada. See the USDA’s full list of certification bodies accredited in the US. 

For more information on the equivalency agreement and the labeling requirements visit the Government of Canada’s Overview page

For information on other equivalency arrangements, see our summary page.

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