Mary Vizoso speaking at yesterday's SOHFT conference in Warwick
The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) yesterday confirmed that its stance on organic foods remains lukewarm. Dr Andrew Wadge, head of the FSA's Chemical Safety and Toxicology Division, told delegates at an organic food briefing held by the Society of Food Hygiene Technology (SOFHT): "The Food Standards Agency considers that there is not enough information available at present to be able to say that organic foods are significantly different in terms of their safety and nutritional content to those produced by conventional farming."

Wadge stressed that the FSA is primarily concerned with the safety and nutritional benefits of organic foods. While taste and environmental concerns might be high on consumers' reasons for choosing organics, such matters were beyond the Agency's remit. He went on to address concerns that organic food might be more vulnerable to mycotoxin contamination than conventionally produced food treated with increased pesticide and fungicide levels. While conceding that there was basis for "some concern," he reiterated the FSA's opinion that there is no evidence to indicate that organic food is more prone to contamination.

Looking beyond the FSA, Wadge commented that a certain consensus has begun to take shape over the last two years. The House of Lords [upper chamber of the UK parliament] has indicated its finding that there is "no conclusive evidence that organically produced food is safer or less safe than that produced conventionally." Meanwhile, the Royal Agricultural Society of England examined the nutritional value of organics and concluded, "there is no clear basis for the statement that organic food is better for the consumer than conventionally grown food."

Retailers upbeat

A rather more upbeat speaker at yesterday's SOFHT conference was Mary Vizoso, head of food technology at UK supermarket chain Waitrose. One of the more upmarket multiple retailers, Waitrose started selling organic fruit and vegetables in 1983, which lent it a strong position upon which to build once the sector started to grow more quickly in the 1990s. The company now sells 1200 organic lines and has established solid penetration of organics across many food categories. For example, 15% of the fruit & veg and dairy (milk) and 8% of bread sold by Waitrose is organic, while a massive 55% of its baby food products are organic. Given that these figures refer to volume sales, one can assume the percentages to be higher still when translated into value terms.

Vizoso claimed that fear has been the key driver of the organic food sector, in particular consumer fear over real or perceived dangers such as salmonella, e-coli, campylobacter, BSE and GM ingredients. Consumers sought refuge in organic food, she said, which they felt was more natural and therefore less likely to harbour risk.

1. Finland
2. Greece
3. Italy
4. Netherlands
5. Denmark
6. Belgium
7. Austria
18. UK

The Waitrose food technologist went on to decry the pitiful subsidies offered to UK farmers wishing to convert their farms to organic production methods. She presented a table outlining EU payment rates for the two-year period of conversion, reproduced below. While the organic food sector is growing faster in the UK than in all but two fellow EU Member States, the subsidies paid to converting farmers is down in 18th place, corresponding to around 10% of that paid to their counterparts in Finland, at the top of the league table.

Vizoso would like to see more of Waitrose's growers convert to organic farming, but clearly with such little support from the government, take-up will be low. Currently only around 3% of UK farmland is organic or in conversion.

The country also needs to devote more resources to research and to ensuring consistent standards across different certification schemes, said Vizozo. At the moment most consumers assume organic standards are the same, regardless of the certification body, but as awareness rises they will seek reassurance on the efficiency of inspection bodies. And as Vizoso pointed out, most consumers believe organic food does not contain pesticides, while in fact certain pesticides are still permitted. This is currently under review, however.

The organics sector is addressing the issues many niche markets experience when they go mainstream. Aligning inconsistent standards, educating consumers and working within commercial pressures remain high on the agenda for organics advocates. But it is perhaps not only the organics sector that should be mulling change. Lower production yields are the bane of organic agriculture and farming, as they compromise profitability. But perhaps we should consider whether yields in conventional agriculture are too high? More succinctly, is too high a price being paid in terms of quality and sustainability for the sake of these larger yields?

Click here for more information on the Society of Food Hygiene Technology.

The current site editorial addresses concerns recently raised over the credibility of the organic system. To read it click here.