Organic Articles: Organic Certification (No, don't run away…)

The Organic Consultancy

Organic Certification (No, don’t run away…)

by Simon Wright

This article originally appeared in the May 2001 edition of Organic Business.

Recent changes in UK organic certification were neatly summed-up by the presence of LawLabs on the Organic Food Federation stand at IFE. The new agreement between the two companies will allow LawLabs to “dovetail the requirements of OFF organic certification with other schemes such as the British Retail Consortium audit, thus potentially reducing costs”. In other words why bother having the Soil Association audit your organic factory or farm when the inspector who already does your usual BRC/Red Tractor audit can do it at lower cost ?

OFF are not the only ones to take this route. OF&G have subcontracted organic processing audits to Synergie Management. CMI plc are a large international inspection and assurance company who are in the process of being accepted as an organic certification body by UKROFS, which would put them on the same legal footing as the Soil Association, OF& G, OFF et al. The assumption behind these moves is that ultimately the industry and organic consumers are only interested in organic foods being certified in accordance with UK law, and that they have no concern for organic standards beyond that.

Simultaneously a counter argument is also emerging, and it is based around IFOAM. IFOAM is promoted by its supporters as the “Gold Standard” of organic certification, and becoming an IFOAM-accredited organic certifier is very demanding. The Soil Association is already accredited to IFOAM, and OF &G have committed to achieving accreditation by 2002. Licensees of these two organisations find themselves required to spend additional management time and resources demonstrating that they reach not just UK and EU organic standards but IFOAM standards as well.

At a time when the vast majority of organic food sold in the UK is imported it is a sound marketing technique to be able to reassure consumers that organic food has been independently inspected to the same high standards irrespective of where the food originated, a key benefit offered when working to IFOAM-accredited standards. Sainsbury’s have said they will only accept IFOAM-accredited certification on their own-label products after January 1st 2003 and Waitrose have announced a similar initiative. Effectively these key players are gambling that consumers will pay more for higher organic standards and greater levels of organic integrity.

In the Organic Food & Farming 2000 report launched at IFE Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, refers to “confusion over certification logos and/or compromises in certification standards” as being number one on his list of the seven biggest challenges for retaining organic food integrity. Consumers are undoubtedly confused and want a single organic standard and logo. Will they pay extra for the Soil Association’s Rolls Royce if the Organic Red Tractor next door costs less?