Organic Articles: Organic Food

The Organic Consultancy

Organic Food


The last three years has seen significantly increased interest in organic food, that is food grown using those principles and techniques that predated the introduction of agro-chemicals and modern intensive farming techniques. Organic food is a small (but growing) identifiable part of the food industry with an identity defined and protected by law. It requires the same involvement of professional food scientists and technologists as the rest of the food industry, and is subject to the same requirements of good manufacturing practice and food safety. Organic food is additionally subject to specific legal requirements that cover cultivation, composition and labelling.


Organic food can be defined as “the product of a farming system which avoids the use of man-made fertilisers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. Instead the system relies on crop rotation, animal and plant manures, some hand weeding and biological pest control”. This definition serves to distinguish the use of the word ‘organic’ in this context from its more traditional scientific meaning as a description of a carbon-containing molecule. ‘Organic’ is the description used only in English-speaking countries; in other markets ‘Bio’ , ‘Oko’ or ‘Eco’ are the more usual descriptions.

Organic food can never be defined as pesticide-free. Organic certification schemes specify that land must be free from chemical inputs for a number of years prior to organic production. However the possible presence of pesticide residues from previous land use means that low levels of pesticides can occasionally be found in certified organic food. The presence of pesticides in this way does not necessarily preclude the food being described as organic providing all other certification requirements have been fulfilled.


3.1 Brief History

In the UK Sir Albert Howard published An Agricultural Testament (1940), advocating that Britain preserve the ‘cycle of life’ and adopt ‘permanent agriculture’ systems, using urban food waste and sewage to build soil fertility. The first person to apply the term ‘organic’ to food production was J.I.Rodale in his 1942 publication Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1946 the young Lady Eve Balfour was inspired by Howard to set up the Soil Association, a pioneering organic farming charity that today is the major organic certification organisation in the UK. In 1960 the Soil Association opened the first shop in the UK selling organic produce. Interest in organic farming grew throughout Europe and the USA during the environmentally aware 1960’s. In 1974 the Soil Association established the UK’s first set of Organic Food Standards, which formed the basis of the EU regulation 2092/91 (See Section 4).

3.2 The Contemporary Organic Consumer

In the UK MORI found that “six out of ten people would chose organic food if it was easily available and cost no more than conventional food”. Among the reasons for buying organic food “health” was by far the most important, 46% of those buying organic food gave it as their primary concern… 40% claimed that organic food “tastes better.” (See Section 5.5). The MORI report gives a profile of the typical organic food consumer as being social grouping AB, age 25-34, and shopping at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose.

3.3 Market Growth

The Leatherhead Food RA have estimated that sales of organic food in the EU tripled over the period 1990 and 1997 and currently amount to over 2.8 billion per year. In 1992 there was 0.5 million hectares under organic cultivation but by 1997 this had reached 1.7 million hectares. The most developed market is Denmark where organic food accounts for 10-13% of all food sales (in the UK it is about 1%). The largest market for organic food is Germany (1.2 billion in 1997), twice the size of the second biggest market (France). In Germany the current annual growth rate of the organic food market exceeds 10%.

As markets mature the percentage share of organic processed food is increasing at the expense of organic fruit and vegetables, traditionally the biggest part of the sector. In Germany organic baby food accounts for more than 60% of the market. Other signs of market maturation are the development of supermarket own-label organic foods which include chilled ready meals, dairy products and soups (UK) and high quality chocolate and biscuits (France). In the UK 70% of all organic food is imported.


4.1 EU Legislation

In 1991 the EU passed Regulation 2092/91 which lays down in detail how food must be produced, processed and packaged to qualify for the description ‘organic’ . The regulation also specifies detailed criteria for the inspection and subsequent certification of food producers and processors.

The regulation is enforced in the UK by the Organic Products Regulations 1992 as amended. Originally Food From Britain was designated as the control body for these regulations: today the relevant Minister acts in consultation with the board of UKROFS, the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards). UKROFS are a subsidiary of MAFF (Room 323B, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR). Producers, importers and processors involved with the distribution of organic products covered by the Regulation are subject to this inspection system. For the purpose of enforcing Articles 9.9 and 10.3 of the Regulation (irregularities and infringements of the rules on labelling and production of organic products) the Minister must give the relevant local authority the means to enforce the organic labelling provisions in Article 5 of the Regulation.

By harmonising organic legislation throughout Europe the EU Regulation has established a level playing-field for manufacturers. This in turn has led to easier transfer of organic ingredients and finished organic foods within the EU. The Regulation also ensures that ingredients entering the EU must have been produced to the same standards as ingredients produced within the EU. After some initial difficulties the Regulation has been welcomed by the Organic Food industry as it has enabled consumers to buy organic produce with confidence, and has reassured producers and processors that their market will not be contaminated by fraud.

A major amendment to the original EU Regulation was made in 1995. This amendment divides organic processed foods into two categories, depending on the proportion of organic ingredients present;

Category 1. Organic
Product contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients by weight. Product can be labelled ‘Organic’ eg Organic Cornflakes

Category 2. Special Emphasis
Product contains 70 – 95% organic ingredients by weight. Product can be labelled ‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ eg Tomato Ketchup made with Organic Tomatoes.

Regulation 2092/91 and its subsequent amendment places some unusual restrictions on the ingredients that a manufacturer of organic foods can use. Annex VI of the Regulation contains a list of the only non-organic ingredients which can be included in an otherwise organic food – for example water, salt, permitted food additives, processing aids, carrier solvents and flavourings. Organic regulations also specifically exclude the use of irradiated or Genetically Modified (GM) ingredients in organic food

4.2 USA Legislation

In the USA organic regulations have been developed on a state-by-state basis – currently there is no national organic legislation. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempted to bring in national organic standards in 1998. These standards would have permitted the use of GM ingredients, sewage sludge and irradiation in food labelled as ‘organic’. The USDA received over 220,000 negative responses to these proposed standards, which have now been withdrawn for redrafting. It is possible the new USDA proposals will be based on the international standards drawn up by IFOAM, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements.

4.3 Certification Procedures

Throughout the EU each member state has a national Control Body: in the UK it is UKROFS. UKROFS regulates the activities of six UK Certification Bodies, who are the organisations charged with inspecting and regulating UK organic producers and manufacturers. The largest Certification Body is the Soil Association, who currently undertake 80% of all certification in the UK. The other UK Certification Bodies are Organic Farmers & Growers, Scottish Organic Producers Association, Demeter, Organic Food Federation (OFF) and Irish Organic Farmers & Growers Association. Other prominent EU certification bodies include Ecocert (France), Naturland (Germany) and Skal (Holland), whilst OCIA, OGBA, QAI and FVO are the prominent certification bodies in the USA.


5.1 Guiding Principles for Organic Food Manufacture

The OFF website quotes the following guidelines:

  • Organic products cannot be sold without a valid Certificate of Compliance issued by a registered Organic Certification Body
  • When a Certificate is issued it applies only to the products listed thereon
  • Records must be kept of all organic material purchased and all organic units produced
  • All organic ingredients must be produced by an organically certified supplier
  • Organic ingredients must be used unless a non-organic version is permitted by the Regulation
  • Organic raw materials and products must be clearly labelled and physically separated from non-organic products

5.2 Quality and Safety in Production

Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is as important in organic food manufacture as in non-organic food manufacture. Current food safety regulations apply to organic food production and it is essential that all appropriate food safety procedures are established and monitored by the food scientists and technologist involved and diligently operated by the manufacturers.

5. 3 Microbiological safety

Concerns have been raised in the past about possible contamination of agricultural produce with pathogens (especially E.Coli O157 ) resulting from use of animal waste as organic fertiliser. These issues are addressed in the Soil Association Organic Standards, where Manure Management and Application is defined and regulated to prevent problems of this type from occurring. Section 3.607 requires that a compost temperature of 60C be reached to facilitate the destruction of vegetative pathogens and that the compost heap be maintained for at least three months. Manure treatment, storage systems and applications are expected to conform to the Statutory Code of Good Practice for the Protection of Water under Section 116 of the Water Act 1989. It is mandatory for every producer licensed by the Soil Association to follow these standards.

The system is subject to regular inspection . Every organic producer or processor is inspected at least once a year by the Certification Body with which they are registered. A further 10% are additionally inspected by UKROFS, to ensure that the organic inspection carried out by the Certification Body has been done to the appropriate standard.

5.4 Nutrition

Lampkin (1990) has pointed out that organic crops are likely to contain lower levels of pesticide residues than conventionally grown crops. He goes onto review eight separate studies which suggest crops grown conventionally contain “not only higher nitrate levels but also higher levels of free amino acids, oxalates and other undesirable compounds, as well as lower levels of Vitamin C”. However Lampkin also notes that so many factors play a role in determining the overall physiological value of food that it is often difficult to isolate those which result directly from the production system.

5.5 Flavour

Lampkin (ibid) has reviewed taste trials that sought to compare organic and non-organic products. A German study found that found that an untrained panel of 30-50 consumers found that organic vegetables tasted better . The test was carried out under carefully controlled experimental conditions but these results were not achieved by a panel of trained tasters, who found no significant difference.

Research at the Edinburgh School of Agriculture showed that a panel of nearly 200 consumers showed a significant preference for organically produced steaks in terms of overall appearance and eating quality. These results are contradicted by a study from the North of Scotland College of Agriculture which found no differences in flavour or eating quality in organic beef from 18-month Hereford x Fresian steers. The UK Potato Marketing Board found that organically produced potatoes had fewer off-flavours, but that they tended to disintegrate during cooking.

It would appear that further work is required to investigate whether the flavour of organic products differs from their non-organic counterparts. However to do so requires all other things to be equal. There is so much flavour variation between different varieties, differing degrees of ripeness or freshness and differing lengths of storage that it is very difficult to ensure valid comparisons are made. It should also be noted that comparisons in individual instances cannot provide a valid generalisation.


6.1 Market Development

The close regulation of organic food production within the EU has resulted in an increase in consumer confidence and a clear set of standards that can be adhered to by new companies entering the organic food industry. Raw material availability may well restrict the continued growth of the market but the amount of land being cultivated organically is also increasing rapidly. According to Mintel the total UK organic market will expand by 88% in real terms between 1997 and 2001 to reach a value of 490m at 1997 prices. Similar growth is anticipated throughout the EU.

6.2 Can Organic Farming Feed The World ?

Woodward (1996) reviewed this question and noted that “whilst technically there would be no overwhelming problems in feeding the UK, Europe and even the USA organically, the structure of agriculture would have to change significantly with massive implications for land access, investment, labour and skills…the question of feeding the world organically has less to do with the technical ability of organic farming to produce adequate nutrients and is more about systems of distribution, markets, finance and political structure”

6.3 Implications For The Mainstream Food Industry

It is possible to see the current interest in organic foods as a reaction to consumer unease over pesticide use, recent UK food scares and a resultant lack of trust in the mainstream (non-organic) food industry. It is possible that further food scares would generate further rapid market growth for organic foods. Interviews with consumers in health-food trade magazines suggest that another factor driving sales is a wish to avoid foods containing GM ingredients. Therefore the way these issues are handled by the mainstream food industry may influence the rate at which this market develops.


In the EU organic food has become established as an identifiable part of the food industry with an identity defined and protected by law. Whilst currently a small part of the food supply in most markets there is potential for significant future growth in the market for organic food.


8.1 Print References

Council Regulation (EEC) 2092/91, Official Journal L198 22.7.91

Amendment to Council Regulation (EEC) 2092/91 1995

Leatherhead Food RA (1998) “The European Organic Foods Market”

The Soil Association (1997) “Standards For Organic Food And Farming”

Wright S – Editor (1994) “Handbook Of Organic Food Processing and Production” (Blackie Academic, London)

Wright S (1997) “Europe Goes Organic”, Food Ingredients Europe, 3 , 39-43.

Woodward L (1996) “Can Organic Farming Feed The World?”, Elm Farm Research Centre Discussion Paper.

Lampkin N (1990) Organic Farming, 557 – 575, Farming Press, Ipswich.

8.2 Websites

SW 17.11.98