In light of contamination concerns relating to G&R Recycling, The Eastern Door has learned that grocery chains Provigo, Metro, and Sobeys have suspended orders from Les Jardins Vegibec.
The beleaguered vegetable producer recently had its certification suspended by CanadaGAP pending an investigation. The decision came after La Presse posed questions to the regulatory body as part of an exposé on Vegibec’s possible use of contaminated water.
The news connects two issues that have long been a source of consternation for Kanesatake residents – toxic runoff from the shuttered G&R Recycling site and Vegibec’s occupation of farmland thought by many community residents to rightfully belong to Kanesatake.
While CanadaGAP certification, which focuses on monitoring farming methods, is not a legal obligation for agricultural businesses, the stamp of approval nevertheless carries weight with food retailers.
“CanadaGAP certification is a mandatory food-safety requirement for us,” said Geneviève Poirier, manager of corporate affairs and communications at Loblaw Companies Ltd. The company operates grocery chains Provigo and Maxi, both of which are customers of Vegibec.
“We have contacted the producer and suspended our orders with Vegibec until further notice,” said Poirier. “We are following the situation very closely and we will determine next steps when the conclusions of the CanadaGAP investigation are known.”
Metro, which also operates Super C and Marche Richelieu, confirmed that there are currently no Vegibec products on its shelves and orders are suspended. Sobeys, which operates Vegibec clients IGA, Les Marches Tradition, and Rachelle Bery, has also taken action.
“Integrity of the food we sell is of the utmost importance to our company,” said Sarah Dawson, public affairs lead at Sobeys. “As this supplier is no longer certified by CanadaGAP, we have suspended our relationship with them.”
G&R Recycling, which has been covered extensively in recent weeks, lost its provincial permit to operate in October 2020, months after a toxic spill on August 1, 2020, turned water flowing through Gratton stream black and foul after years of government inaction.
The dump had been violating its permitted limits for years, exceeding it many times over, and has yet to be remediated despite the risks to lands and waters of Kanesatake and the region.
A complaint lodged against Vegibec with Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAPAQ) in August 2020 was obtained through an access to information request that was posted to the website of MAPAQ and subsequently viewed by The Eastern Door.
In it, a complainant alleges that Vegibec cabbage was watered with contaminated and foul-smelling water.
La Presse obtained reports from Quebec’s environment ministry that reveal that, prior to the spill, Vegibec installed an illegal dike at the mouth of Gratton stream to water crops. The existence of the dike was confirmed to La Presse by company president Pascal Lecault, who denied he drew from it following the spill, saying it had been weeks. However, the investigation by the media outlet included a complaint that Vegibec had been drawing water only the day before the spill.
The La Presse investigation shows that a farm in another community, St. Joseph du Lac, where Vegibec has an irrigation basin, is on land subject to a contamination notice.
According to CanadaGAP executive director Heather Gale, it is unknown whether Vegibec let retailers know about its suspension, but the clients are likely aware because of the lack of a valid certificate.
However, despite at least three grocery chains suspending business with Vegibec, the certification is voluntary.
“In this case, there is no recall,” said Gale. “It is the customer’s decision as to which suppliers they use and which products they choose to sell.”
Gale said the investigation is underway but that there is no indication how long it will take.
“The allegations are serious enough to warrant the certification body suspending the certificate while the circumstances are further investigated,” she said.
The investigation could entail exchanges with Vegibec, an on-site audit, corrective actions, and more before a decision would be finalized.
“From what we know at the moment, if water sources were not properly assessed by the producer and potential risks to water quality were not properly managed, that is clearly of concern,” said Gale. She added that disclosure of regulatory interventions is a requirement for participating producers. CanadaGAP relies in large part on disclosures from producers to assess their compliance with the rules in place, she said.
“If a producer determines not to divulge relevant information that is otherwise not readily available, the certification body may not be able to discern truly fraudulent activity,” said Gale. “The certification body cannot act on what they don’t know. Our experience is that the vast majority of producers are highly motivated to demonstrate that they are producing food responsibly and safely.”
She portrayed incidents such as this one as an opportunity to review program requirements to find room for improvement.
Vegibec did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
Vegibec, meanwhile, has rankled community members since Lecault purchased farmland in 2015 from a Kanehsata’kehró:non.
Technically part of Oka, the land, which is in the vicinity of Little Tree Gas, most recently attracted attention when Kanesatake resident Al Harrington delivered a non-binding “eviction notice” signed by “The Land Defenders of Kanesatake” to the home of Lecault.
Lecault responded by reporting Harrington to the police, and lawyers representing the municipality of Oka, where Vegibec is headquartered, sent a warning to Harrington to cease his disruptive activities against the company, which they characterized as harassment and intimidation.
“It’s not coming from me, so I was a little blown away by the report that was released on the news about it,” said Harrington about recent reports connecting G&R Recycling and Vegibec.
Harrington has often complained about commercial farming practices being employed at the farm, which he views as harmful to the environment.
Harrington had previously vowed to make good on his promise to disrupt Vegibec once production ramped back up during the summer, but only with community support.
“I’m still debating on the course of action to take,” he said this week. “This land is huge, and the community here is lacking for land, and you’ve got this big corporation that owns quite a bit within the territory now and no community member will benefit from this, at all. They’re lacking housing, lacking land. Our kids, other kids in the community, people have to move off the reserve to live, and that’s not okay.”
Despite being unsure whether he will continue to pursue the action, he feels the news of Vegibec’s CanadaGAP suspension bolsters the cause of pressuring the company to leave the farm. “This actually helps me to justify my actions. Before it was just hearsay,” Harrington said.
In December, the mayor of Oka, Pascal Quevillon, emphasized to The Eastern Door that he believed land issues should be resolved by the government of Canada and said he objected to Harrington’s methods.
Days later, Harrington was served with the letter from Oka lawyers.
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.