Loblaw says it will “act quickly” in reviewing its ties with an Ontario poultry producer if the supplier is found to have lied about the origins of certified organic chicken sold in Loblaw and other supermarkets.
“Customers trust our organic products and complete integrity is not optional,” said Kevin Groh, a spokesperson for Loblaw.
In a lawsuit filed in Ontario on Thursday, Cericola Farms Inc., a poultry producer, is alleged to have falsified labels on chicken products, marking them as organic when the poultry came from non-organic farms.
Cericola Farms is a supplier for Loblaw and Sobeys, the country’s largest and second-largest supermarket operators, respectively. Cericola also sells poultry to big-box retailer Costco.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has opened an investigating into the claim, according to Loblaw, which says it will take appropriate action once the findings are conclusive.
“Much as we are inclined to act now, we cannot simply rely on hearsay evidence in a wrongful dismissal case,” Groh said.
Vashti Dalipsingh, a former operations manager for Bradford, Ont.-based Cericola Farms alleges management instructed workers “to falsely label conventional chicken products as premium ‘certified organic’ products in order to fill orders and ship on schedule,” a statement from her lawyers said.
Cericola terminated Dalipsingh in April after she stopped two shipments from going out to grocery stores in the Greater Toronto Area, including to Loblaw, Sobeys and Costco locations.
Dalipsingh is suing Cericola for wrongful dismissal. She was fired for “tampering with products” by Cericola, the second-largest producer of organic chicken in Ontario, according to Dalipsingh. “I’d tried to stop it within, and I got fired,” she said in an interview.
“We take all reasonable measures to ensure compliance with applicable law and best practices,” the Cericola statement said.
“While the wrongful dismissal case and the associated allegations by an employee seeking financial compensation are regrettable, all of us at Cericola will continue to focus on delivery of the highest quality food products to Canadians.”
Dorian Persaud, a lawyer for Dalipsingh, said CFIA inspectors who were on site failed to catch what the lawsuit alleges was a scheme involving Cericola’s senior leaders and the producer’s quality assurance department, which “facilitated the deception by falsifying records and changing code stickers to read that chicken arriving at the plant for processing was organic, when it was clearly not.”
Certified organic meat products generally cannot contain hormones and antibiotics. One of the products identified by Dalipsingh as being falsely mislabelled was Blue Goose Certified Humane chicken, a popular organic option sold at Sobeys and Loblaw grocery stores.
A statement released Thursday afternoon from Blue Goose said the farm company was notified by Cericola that there was “no merit” to the allegations. “Cericola provides poultry processing services to Blue Goose and other companies and is a fully licensed and federally inspected processor,” the company said.
Experts estimate that organic meats like Blue Goose account for less than five per cent of total protein sales at Canadian supermarkets. But as consumer preferences shift toward products perceived to be healthier and more humane, stores are pressuring suppliers to come up with more.
Organic or “traditionally raised” chicken, beef and pork are also a means for grocers to differentiate from discount banners as well as Walmart — chains that have been stealing share away from conventional grocers in recent years, according to Kevin Grier, a livestock market analyst based in Guelph, Ont.
“The grocers feel they have to have them,” Grier said.
Big grocers don’t directly verify if organic-certified products follow industry guidelines. Instead, they rely on CFIA-approved verification bodies in each province. Those bodies are responsible for ensuring organic producers follow CFIA guidelines.
“Ultimately, we rely on third-party certification of suppliers’ organics claims, which has many checks and balances,” Loblaw spokeperson Groh said.
Requests for comment from Sobeys and Costco were not responded to.
WATCH: Ex-Cericola Farms manager discusses reasons that caused her to come forward with a lawsuit.