In December 2000, The United States department of agriculture (USDA) published its final rule on organic standards. Essentially a guideline to tell farmers and food producers what makes a product organic, the rule is intended to inspire consumer confidence in a growing market, where it is often unclear whether a product is organic or not. Last month, an Agricultural Committee of the UK Parliament raised questions to this effect. So what exactly is an organic product? This question has no simple answer; what constitutes organic in one country may not be considered organic in another.

The growth of organics from niche value to broader popularity can be partially attributed to a trend towards healthy eating, but its current status has more to do with consumer concern over food safety and moral ethics about a sustainable environment. The GMO debate has made organics a valuable concept, as its very definition is the opposite of the genetically modified idea. The market in Europe has grown 70% between 1995 and 1999 while the US industry is worth US$6bn. It appears that everyone wants a piece of the organic cake. Retailers have cashed in, and food multinationals like Mars and General Mills have taken notice too, while governments have now sought to regulate standards.


Advocates of organic production and processing say organic applies not only to food, but to the production methods too. Essentially, organic food is grown or raised based on a system of farming that mimics or respects natural ecosystems, a product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Organic produce instead relies on a system of crop rotation, ethical livestock rearing, and biological pest control.


Regulation


One of the reasons why the market has taken off in recent years is the introduction of organic standards through the legislative process. In an effort to control the industry but also promote its benefits, government bodies have sought to control all aspects of food production through farming produce to the packaged product. A product will only be certified organic if it meets national standards. The right to call a product organic is a viable marketing tool, as consumers know exactly how the food items they purchase are grown.



USA
The US rules come into force from spring 2001 and companies wishing to claim products as organic have 18 months to comply with the USDA standards. The rules are long overdue having been ten years in the making. Outgoing USDA secretary Dan Glickman claimed that the US now has the strictest and most comprehensive rules in the world.


The major principles of organic production and processing outlined by the USDA include: Prohibiting the use of irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic engineering in foods marketed as organic; immediate notification of “drift” of a prohibited substance from a neighbouring property or other source; disallowing the use of pesticides on land designated for organic produce for at least three years prior to organic planting; setting specific intervals between the application of raw manure to crops and harvesting them; and prohibiting the use of antibiotics in livestock production.


The USDA requires a product that can be labelled as ‘organic’ to contain 95% organically produced ingredients. The remainder must be made up of non-agricultural substances or products approved on the USDA’s national list. Products meeting these requirements must display the terms on their principal display panel while a USDA seal, and the seal or mark of certifying agents, may appear on packages and in advertisements. Products labelled as ‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ must contain at least 70% organic ingredients and can display a certifying agent’s seal or mark on the package; use of a USDA seal is prohibited for these products.


Other labelling provisions state that packaging of any product labelled organic must state the actual percentage of organic ingredients and use the word ‘organic’ to modify each organically produced ingredient; the name and address of the certifying agent must be displayed on the label’s information panel. But no restrictions are made upon the use of truthful labelling claims, such as ‘pesticide free,’ ‘no drugs or growth hormones used’ or ‘sustainably harvested’


The organic rule excludes retail outlets from most of the requirements, along with food producers whose gross income from organic sales is US$5,000 or less a year, while a list of natural pesticides for organic foods has been approved by the USDA. Through its accredited certifiers, the USDA can either suspend or revoke certification for producers, handlers or processors for infractions of USDA rules; fines are also imposable for those who fraudulently label products as organic.


While some expect to see the organic industry blossom under the USDA regulations, others have criticised the rules for its one-size-fit-all stance. The new rules will prohibit certification bodies from using any other standards other than those prescribed by the USDA. US organic products, therefore, will not be certified to standards that are more restrictive than the USDA regulations. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFoam) claims the rules will limit the ability of the organic community to safeguard the future of the organic guarantee and reassure consumers what they are buying is truly organic.


Critics of the rules claim that the regulations will benefit bigger manufacturers as established smaller players with private seals and good organic reputations will have to conform to the rules despite previous good practice. “The label only attests to a minimum standard,” says Diane Schill, an organic farmer from North Dakota. “Bigger manufacturers will be able to slide under the label.” Taking the industry away from its core roots will no doubt open up the industry to a bigger customer base but will be this to the detriment to the ideal of just what is organic.


EU


In the EU, current legislation over organic produce is defined by European Regulation 2092/91 (1991) (http://www.europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/lif/dat/1991/en_391R2092.html) which has since been extended in the European Regulation 1804/1999 (1999) to cover livestock production such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. The Regulation sets out minimal standards for organic production, processing, labelling and marketing of organic crop products, while also specifying detailed criteria for the inspection and subsequent certification of food producers and processors. Each member country can then define its own set of standards above that minimal standard; and countries can set their own standards for areas not covered by the Regulation. The Regulation requires member countries to establish ‘a competent authority,’ which polices the industry and approves certification bodies. Products produced in accordance with the standards and inspection processes set out in the Regulation in any member state may be imported into each other. All ingredients used in food manufacture must have been produced by an organically certified body.


The EU regulations have been welcomed by the organic food industry and have enabled consumers to buy organic produce with confidence, but question are now being asked. Can consumers be confident the products they buy are truly organic?


In 1995, a major amendment to the original EU Regulation was passed in relation to what constitutes an organic processed food after confusion over labelling products. For a product to be organic, it must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients by weight. Products that contain only 70-95% organic ingredients can be labelled ‘Made with Ingredients’. Annex VI of the Regulation contains a list of the only ingredients that can be used to make up the non-organic ingredients in an organic food. These comprise 40 ‘Non-Agricultural’ ingredients, 30 processing aids and a further 49 ‘Agricultural’ ingredients.


The EU regulations allow for a number of non-organic processing aids and additives, thus allowing food manufacturers to get around processing problems. As the question of cross-contamination of organic and conventional ingredients is a real possibility, especially as more and more conventional producers begin to produce organic sidelines, consumers who already believe the product they buy is 100% organic may find that this has not been the case at all. The EU has no plans at present to update regulations in this area, despite criticism over whether such products can claim to be made in accordance with organic principles and ingredients.

Another concern around current EU regulations is that despite minimum standards for organics production in the EU, member countries have different certification bodies that operate to different standards. This raises questions of quality and whether consumers truly know what they are buying. The UK for instance has conversion periods that are longer and certain pesticides may be used elsewhere but not here. The issue of gold-plating regulations is particularly relevant to countries that have an established organic tradition like Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. The concern for these countries is that products imported into their countries do not reach their own specific certification standards as they only have to be produced to minimum EU rules. A situation where products marketed as organic may not even meet the national standards of another EU member state leads to a confused picture for consumers.


When imports come from third country suppliers, there is more confusion as to whether basic standards have been applied in production and processing. The Soil Association in the UK agrees that establishing equivalence of standards and certification procedures in third countries is ‘not very thorough,’ Policing standards and making sure that existing standards are met is the responsibility of the EU but a common criticism aimed at the regulations is that most member states have no idea of what is going on in other countries. 


The EU regulations on organics are largely out of date. The United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) told the UK parliament’s Agricultural Committee last month that the regulation was largely based on ‘practices which were in place at the time the standard was being drawn up.’ Most certifiers are now setting the standards themselves over and above current EU regulations. The industry is progressing but a review of EU regulations is long overdue to take account of the higher standards now being practiced in member states.


A more obvious solution to differences in standards applied by bodies, not only in Europe but across the world, is a single international standard to which all countries adhere. This would remove tensions between nations who claim they suffer a completive disadvantage because they meet higher standards. Over fifteen international certifiers are accredited to one such body, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM). IFOAM basic standards can be found on www.ifoam.org. However, there is no likelihood of a common international standard being accepted by national governments or the EU in the foreseeable future.


The future of the organic sector is highly dependent on public perception of its ideals. Consumers believe organic food is chemical free or environmentally benign, but the difference between reality and perception is a very thin line. As seen already, regulatory authorities in both the EU and the US, under heavy pressure from the food industry, have allowed processed foods to contain 5% non-organic ingredients. There is a very real possibility that, as the industry grows, standards may be eroded and without firm regulation the industry could spiral out of control. Consumers may in turn lose faith and desert the sector if what they are buying is not truly organic.


By Rajiv Desai, just-food.com Deputy Editor