As the finalization and implementation of Canada’s new organic standards draws closer, Canadian and U.S. officials continue to work on an equivalency agreement.

“We’re hopeful that there will be an equivalency agreement, and it’s looking like that will happen,” said Samantha Cabaluna, communications director for San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Natural Selection Foods LLC.

The company has been following the issue closely and has a few staff members involved in committees that are discussing the initiative, she said.

The agreement would be particularly important, as Canada is the U.S.’s top trading partner, said Barbara Haumann, press secretary for the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass.

Officials in both Canada and the U.S. are meeting on this issue and working toward compromises where there are differences. Two big differences could hinder U.S. exporters at this point, only one of which is a fresh produce practice.

Canadian regulations prohibit the use of sodium nitrate, a mine mineral used in soil that is an accepted substance in certain organic farms in the U.S.

“It’s one of the bigger differences,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of the Organic Trade Association in Canada.

Canada to start organic criteria

Matthew Holmes, managing director of the Organic Trade Association in Canada, said there are two main issues holding up an organic equivalency agreement between Canada and the U.S.

Holmes is also one of four chairs of the Technical Committee on Organic Agriculture, part of the Canadian General Standards Board, responsible for the standards in the country. The committee advises the government officials working on the equivalency agreement in Canada.

“The approach we’ve taken at this point is that a lot of products on the market are grown with this, and we don’t want to shut out our suppliers. We want to give them some options,” Holmes said. “We’ve said we’re flexible on this. It may be a three-year phase-in or something similar.”

Officials from the U.S. and Canada, including representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Organic Program, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canada Organic Office, will continue to work out a solution to this issue, and other more minor issues, before and equivalency agreement can be met.

The other major issue deals with livestock, but could affect all other industries because an agreement may not be signed until every aspect of the organic certifications can be agreed opon.

“It’s possible to carve a sector out, but that would probably endanger the whole agreement,” Holmes said.

Both countries announced their intention to reach an organic equivalency agreement March 25. What’s more, government officials announced a target date of the June launch date for the Canadian organic standards for the agreement to be signed.

“This was the first time they publicly indicated their agreement to sign, and they named a deadline date to allow things to flow smoothly,” Holmes said.

The Canadian standards were published in January, and were open to comment through the end of April. The committee should spend between that time and June, when the standards go into effect, reviewing those comments and possibly implementing changes, he said.

After committee meetings mid-April, Holmes said the only proposed change so far that affected the fresh produce industry was one involving parallel production, which is allowed in the U.S. but prohibited in Canada.

The issue was not big enough to warrant recommending a change for the equivalency agreement for the U.S., but producers in Canada are still prohibited by the standard.

Parallel production involves growing two similar-looking items, such as two varieties of orange carrots, one of which is organic and the other conventionally grown, under the same management.

“You could grow orange carrots conventionally and purple carrots organically, or you could grow onions organically and carrots conventionally,” Holmes said. “But the feeling is in practice that may not be something that easily enforceable.”