A study by the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has cast serious doubt on whether organic food can claim to have nutritional and health benefits. And despite subsequent criticism, the FSA has stood firm. Ben Cooper looks at how the already beleaguered organic sector has reacted to the findings, and asks where it goes from here.

Already in the doldrums, the organic sector needed the events of the past fortnight like a hole in the head.

But the publication of a research review by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which concluded that there were no important nutrient differences or additional health benefits in organic food could represent a more fundamental problem for the sector than the recent dip in demand. Indeed, it could hamper any post-recession recovery.

Not surprisingly for an industry accustomed to defending itself, the organic sector came out fighting. The Soil Association (SA) suggested the review was over-selective, had ignored important research, that the omission of the discussion of pesticides was a significant failing and even drew data from the review itself which it said supported the case for important nutrient differences.

However, Jeanette Longfield of UK agriculture pressure group Sustain is less critical of the methodology. She accepts that as a systematic review it rejected studies that "weren't sufficiently rigorous or didn't show statistical significance", but adds: "That just indicates what everybody knew before, which is there aren't very many good studies. It's a classic case of ask a silly question get a silly answer."

Sustain has been a strong supporter of some of the FSA's other actions, for example on food labelling, so Longfield would not be drawn on suggestions by some activists that the Agency has been influenced by industry on this matter. She simply says "whether it's a conspiracy or a cock-up, we've got something that's not very good". The FSA should have examined organic food "in the round", Longfield says, looking at pesticides, anti-biotic resistance, environmental benefits and "all the reasons why people buy organic", rather than simply focusing on nutrients and health benefits.

This emphasis on a range of attributes and consumer motivations lies at the heart of much of what organic advocates have said in the past fortnight. While the SA has alluded to omitted studies, notably a recent EU-funded study by researchers at Newcastle University, a key plank in the industry's defence has been that people don't buy organic primarily for health reasons, and marketing is not predicated on nutritional differences.

This stance has been greeted quizzically in certain quarters because there appears to be more than a hint of revisionism about it. Any casual observer of the organic sector can find plenty of allusions on company websites, Rachel's Organic, Dove Farms and Yeo Valley to name but three, to organic food being better for you.

Steve Clarke, marketing manager at Rachel's Organic, says people buy organic "on quality and taste" grounds. "Organic is actually many, many things and is not just about nutrition. I think for some people nutrition may have been an important component, for others it may not." Clarke says Rachel's does not "overtly" sell itself on "a health and nutrition ticket". But on its website, Rachel's says its products are 'better for you and your family'. 

Campaigners are apt to take multinational food companies to task over health claims they may make for products, insisting that they have to be supported. Now the boot appears to be on the other foot. And Longfield is adamant that the organic sector must be similarly accountable. "I don't think anybody should be making claims that can't be supported," she says.

Clarke concurs: "If organic manufacturers are going to overtly make a health claim, that this has got more nutrients in it or is going to be better for you in that sense, then that needs to be supported."

However, he adds: "I can't think of anyone who's actually making an overt active claim like that." His use of the term 'overt' twice is significant, and may become more so.
 
While the FSA review suggests claims of significant nutritional benefits would be hard to support, both Clarke and Longfield appear to believe this still leaves scope for what might be termed the 'soft marketing' of health attributes.

Clarke says the 'better for you' idea is a kind of health promotion "that's not necessarily directly about nutrition" but "is about putting good things inside your body. It's what I would call nourishing goodness."

Communicating the "multiplicity of benefits" organic offers in a compelling way, Clarke adds, is "a massive challenge" for the industry but one that as a marketer he is relishing.

It may also be a challenge the sector will be facing collectively in due course. Sustain is coordinating a campaign to obtain EU funds, which are available on a matched basis for organic generic marketing. It is aiming for the three-year GBP1m campaign to be up and running in 2010. Organic companies are contributing to the fund and will have an input into devising the campaign. In the light of the FSA review, the weight attached to health and nutrition will be a key question.

Organic marketers may market their foods on a range of attributes, and consumers may buy it for a variety of reasons, but the notion that organic food is in some way better for you clearly pervades the organic proposition. Brands do make health claims, albeit rarely very specific ones.

However, if a generally sceptical view of the health attributes of organic foods prevails, it is clear that organic marketers will have to focus on characteristics such as environmental impact, animal welfare and taste and quality.

That is, unless definitive research can be undertaken, and of course that it finds in favour of organic. But conclusive findings proved difficult for the FSA to come by and will not be easy to engineer going forward. Longfield points out that such research is expensive and the organic sector lacks the necessary resources. She also casts doubt on whether conventional longitudinal research models to measure health effects would be practicable. Even if a suitable research method could be found, the trouble with longitudinal research is that, as the name suggests, it is a long time before any conclusions can be drawn.

Intuitively we might imagine organic foods are better for us, but any specific health claims need to be supported by scientific evidence. And at the moment that evidence appears to be rather thin on the ground.