Quebec grocer takes protest to the streets

Denis Gilbert is walking 550 km to Montreal to raise money to pay a fine for improperly labeling food as organic

Quebec health-food store owner Denis Gilbert says the $25,000 fine he was slapped with recently for repackaging organic food items without a licence was a devastating blow for his business and his family.

But he says his decision to walk the 550 km from his store in the northern Quebec city of Saguenay to the policing agency's offices in Montreal to pay his fine has helped turn his loss into a victory for organic food producers and retailers across la belle province.

"It's amazing the number of people who have rallied to support me against this brutal injustice," Gilbert told Canadian Grocer this week, as he walked into the town of Berthierville, halfway between Trois-Rivières and Montreal.

Gilbert has been walking six hours a day since leaving Saguenay on Aug. 25.

He expects to arrive at the offices of Quebec's organic watchdog—the Conseil des appellations réservées et des termes valorisants (or CARTV)–just before noon on Tuesday.

"I'm going to present them with an oversized check for $25,000," said Gilberts. "I want to use the occasion to raise awareness about the challenges facing Quebec organic producers and retailers."

Gilbert's 25-day trek has already generated much media coverage and buzz on social media, especially on his Facebook page.


He has also raised nearly $8,000 on his "Go Fund Me" page to help pay his fine, and several thousand more from customers, fans and fellow organic merchants and producers.

It all began when Gilbert and his wife were found guilty on 23 counts of repackaging and labelling food items without their store, named Bizz, being certified by one of the half-dozen agencies accredited by the CARTV.

Created by the Quebec government in 2006, the CARTV is mandated to protect the authenticity of organic products and to enforce proper certification by producers and retailers.

Gilbert had run afoul of CARTV on several occasions since he opened his eight-employee store in 2002.

"He was found to not conform on several visits from our inspectors," said CARTV's general manager, Anne-Marie Granger Godbout.

The problem, she noted, was that Gilbert frequently failed or refused to renew his annual certification licence, which can cost up to $2,000.

The licence enables store owners to legally repackage and label bulk organic foods into smaller packages.


"It helps to protect the credibility of the reserved designations," Granger Godbout said. She added that unlike most store owners, Gilbert refused to change his business practices.

The CARTV initially fined Gilbert a whopping $71,000, but following a trial in June, a judge reduced that amount to $25,000.

Gilbert defended his actions, saying the requirement for health-food stores to be certified is redundant because the items they sell come from certified producers.

"It's autocratic and senseless over-regulation by government," he said.

"I nearly fell off my chair," Gilbert said. "It threatened the existence of a business I worked hard to build for me and my family."

On the Facebook page promoting Gilbert's walk, he notes the imposed by the CARTV is unfair. He hopes the Quebec government will review the management of the law.


The amount of the fine has also been widely criticized by Quebec politicians and organic industry stakeholders, some of whom have called for the CARTV to be abolished.

"I almost cried when I heard about (Gilbert's fine)," said Nathalie Gélinas, who owns two health-food stores in Trois-Rivières and is a warehouse distributor for health-food stores across Quebec, the vast majority of them small- and medium-sized operations like Bizz.

Gélinas said she donated money to Gilbert because she was angered by severity of the fine.

"I don't understand the goal of imposing a $71,000 fine for repackaging and labelling on a small store like that," she said.  "It's abusive and senseless really, since the food being sold is accredited anyway. I think the government needs to take a serious look at this."

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