Buyer beware on natural food, says consumer

Barb Sweet
Published on May 23, 2012
Cows, many of them hybrid, meander around the pasture at Stan Tobin’s farm in Ship Cove. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram

Ship Cove, Placentia Bay — Up a rough cut road, meadows divided by forest shelter are empty — the inhabitants have taken cover on a cool spring day.

If the beef cattle were in the fields, they would have one of the most spectacular ocean views on the island.

Back on the main road, some of Stan Tobin’s cows are more sociable as they amble along near a collection of buildings.

Tobin’s pastureland used to be certified organic. But he gave it up, he said, because of the high cost — $2,500 a year — for flying in and paying the costs of a certifier, who checked paperwork but took no soil samples.

But Tobin said he maintains the principles — keeping the pasture natural and forgoing antibiotics.

Marketing his beef as certified organic is a much more complex matter and not cost-effective, Tobin said.

The series of requirements include that the cows be born on the land, and Tobin said it’s not feasible to keep that big of a herd. He operates with 40 cows or fewer which he imports as calves from the Maritimes.

Nevertheless, buyers like Tobin’s beef because it’s local and they verify his practices by word of mouth.

“It is as good as certified. What would certification give me? Nothing more,” Tobin said.

Judie Squires of Portugal Cove writes a blog, Colorful Canary, about natural living. She suffers from reactions to chemicals and grows as much food as she can herself.

And she said her family eats Tobin’s beef, and is satisfied with his practices.

Squires keenly questions any distributor or farmer who makes any natural or organic claims.

She got concerned a year ago when a company called Newfoundland Food Distributors Ltd. advertised a deal through a popular group buying promotion. The company’s website notes “certified organic,” but it does not provide much more detail about its products.

This year, the company is marketing a group buy as “local beef.”

Tobin said the company approached him prior to last year’s group buy about his beef, but he never did get the specifics on an order and didn’t sell any of his product to the distributor.

Bon Rideout, president of Newfoundland Food Distributors, said he brings in organic beef from time to time from an Ontario packing company, and otherwise, is supporting local farmers in the province.

He insists he would not sell the beef as organic if it isn’t stamped “certified organic” as approved by a qualified firm.

But he said he wants to be a flagship in the province for meat and seafood.

As for the information on the website, Rideout said, “We have a bit of trouble with our website people right now,” insisting it hasn’t been maintained.

Squires said people need to understand the terminology and ask lots of questions.

Just because it’s local, she said, doesn’t make it organically raised. Chickens, for example, could be locally raised, she noted, but fed genetically modified grain.

She’s been eating beef from pasture-raised cows and making other natural choices since 1999.

“Most people are so disconnected from food,” she said.

“Not enough people care about the organic aspect of food. … Most people want to slap a steak on the grill and that’s it.”

For her food preferences and those of others who contacted her, Squires wasn’t satisfied with the answers she got from Newfoundland Food Distributors last year.

She’ll even ask to see a farm before she’ll buy product. She said even some farmers may not be knowledgeable enough about what’s natural and what isn’t, and some think it’s OK to use pesticides and call it natural.

“If a company or farmer doesn’t want to answer your questions, walk away,” she said.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency lists companies that certify organics — they are all elsewhere in Canada or international.

But Mark Wilson of St. John’s is an inspector and could be contracted through one of the approved companies if those certification agencies choose to do so.

As an inspector, Wilson said, it isn’t necessary to take soil samples, as he can tell from a paper trail and site inspection what’s going on.

He said consumers have to support local farms so they deem it viable to seek certification.

 But Wilson said he’d rather buy local products than certified organic products that travel long distances from the U.S. or elsewhere.

The key, he said, is for people to become familiar with who they are buying from.

Genetically modified organisms pose a threat to healthy agriculture, he said, and a strong organic movement counteracts that.

But with consumer support, many local farms could engage in the process of becoming certified, and that would be a guaranteed way for people to verify what they are getting, Wilson said.

Mike Rabinowitz of The Organic Farm in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s said his operation was certified for several years, but he also gave it up because of the high fees charged by the mainland company. Like Tobin, he’s carrying on with the same practices that led to certification.

He said he has lots of support for his product from the local community, but the farm’s not a profit-making venture at this point. He also doubts farmers will go for certification until they are required to.

 This province’s chapter of the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN-NL) is a sustainable, not-for-profit organization which promotes and encourages a viable organic agricultural industry.

Its website lists member farmers who are using natural methods.