Organic Articles: Labelling Matters

The Organic Consultancy

Labelling Matters

by Simon Wright

Simon Wright of The Organic Consultancy helps you make sense of organic labels and explains what you can and can’t say about organic food. This article originally appeared in the August/September 2001 edition of organiclife.

Understanding Organic Labels

Walk around any supermarket or organic food shop and you will be amazed by the diversity of organic labelling on display. With imports of organic food into the UK running at 75% there are many different countries supplying our shops with organic food. How can you tell whether those apples from Argentina are really organic? Organic food doesn’t always taste different to non-organic and appearance is no guide to organic quality. The answer is to Look At The Label – the information is all there if only you can decipher it!

A Legal Matter

Exactly how organic food is labelled is closely controlled by law. Consumers can buy organic food safe in the knowledge that product labelling is checked before the food goes on sale. Checking is the job of the organic certification body, an organisation that exists to ensure that organic farmers and producers follow the rules in producing their organic products. In turn the certifying bodies are controlled by the government to ensure they do their job effectively. We currently have nine different certification bodies in the UK, and each has a different symbol. The symbols of the most common certifying bodies are shown below. The symbols you will see most frequently on UK-produced organic food are those of The Soil Association, Organic Farmers & Growers and the Organic Food Federation.

By law every product must carry a description that the product is organic as part of its title. Bearing in mind that the word organic describes a method of production we should really say “Potatoes that have been organically grown” or “Potatoes Produced under Organic Standards”. Most producers use the simpler “Organic Potatoes” as the product name, but somewhere in the small-print you should find one of these more precise descriptions.

What, No Symbol?

Many shoppers look for the symbol of a certifying body such as the Soil Association on a product label as an essential reassurance that a given food is really organic. However the use of such symbols is entirely optional and a product can still be organic even though if it doesn’t carry the symbol of a certifying body. What must be present in law are the words “Organic Certification” followed by a code. For UK certifying bodies the code will be prefixed by “UK’. If you see “Organic Certification UK5” on a product label it means that this product has been checked and certified by the Soil Association as being organic, and this holds even if no Soil Association symbol is shown. UK2 refers to Organic Farmers & Growers, UK4 is the Organic Food Federation and so on. In law organic products must always carry a certification code – ultimately this code is your only guarantee that a food or drink is truly organic. You should be suspicious of any product that purports to be organic but carries no organic certification code. Finally I have been asked whether organic food that carries the code UK5 is five tines more organic than food carrying the code UK1: this is emphatically not the case!

So Why Isn’t My Ketchup 100% Organic?

When the market for organic food consisted of organic fruit and vegetables understanding whether an apple was organic was very simple: if it had been grown according to the organic regulations then the apple was organic, end of story. The situation has been made more complicated by the recent development of organic processed foods, most of which contain a number of different ingredients. Consumers are often surprised to find non-organic ingredients listed on the label of an organic food.

Here is typical list of ingredients taken from the label of a bottle of organic Tomato Ketchup:

“Ingredients: Organic Tomatoes, Water, Organic Sugar, Organic Vinegar, Organic Spices, Seasalt, Gelling Agent: Pectin”

Out of the seven ingredients listed four are organic and three are not. Yet the product can still be legally sold as Organic Tomato Ketchup. The reasons for this apparent anomaly are hidden in the small print of the EC organic regulation 2092/91. This says that water and salt do not need to be organic. Once water and salt have been taken out of the recipe at least 95% of what remains must be organic, with no more than 5% of non-organic ingredients. However manufacturers are only allowed to use non-organic ingredients if the organic version does not exist. So in our Organic Tomato Ketchup non-organic pectin is permitted because no organic pectin yet exists. Once an organic ingredient exists manufacturers are required to start using it. Some supermarkets are encouraging their suppliers to aim higher than 95% organic and deliver 100% organic products wherever possible.

Different producers use a variety of ways to distinguish between organic and non-organic ingredients on their labels. Here are two further, equally legal versions of our Organic Tomato Ketchup ingredients list:

“Ingredients: Tomatoes *, Water, Sugar *, Vinegar *, Spices *, Seasalt, Gelling Agent: Pectin * = organically grown and processed”

“Organic Ingredients: Tomatoes, Water +, Sugar +, Vinegar +, Spices +, Seasalt, Gelling Agent: Pectin + = permitted non-organic ingredient”

The second version is used to emphasise that there may be non-organic ingredients in an organic product but these are still carefully controlled in law – for example the non-organic ingredients in an otherwise organic product must be all natural, cannot be genetically modified and so on.

What about imported products?

Organic food produced elsewhere in the EU is covered by the same organic regulations that control organic food labelling in the UK. However this legislation allows for organic food to be referred to as “ecologico”, “okologisk”, “biologique”, “biologico”, “biologisch” or “ekologisk” and you will often see one of these tems used on the labels of organic food produced outside the UK . Further confusion arises when “biologique” is shortened on a label to “bio”, a term we in the UK more usually associate with live yoghurt or washing powder!

At the last count there were around 130 different certifying bodies throughout Europe, although more are starting up all the time. Each certifying body works to at least the EU organic legislation but every organisation has its own symbol, which results in great consumer confusion. Some of the better known European certifiers are Skal (Holland), Ecocert (France) and BCS (Germany). Every certifying body has a certification code which reflects its country of origin . So for example Skal is NL01, Ecocert is FRAB01 and BCS is DE001. It is perfectly legal for organic products to be sold in the UK under foreign certification but any product from within the EU must carry a certification code and this is your reassurance that such products are truly organic. The rules are slightly different for organic products from non-EU countries such as the USA but even these are subject to checks when they arrive to ensure all organic products are produced to broadly the same organic standards as within the EU.

Can it get any more confusing? Just watch! The French and German governments now both have their own organic symbols and there is even an EU organic symbol. Finally the international organisation IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) has launched its own seal to provide a truly global standard of organic certification. With such an extraordinary diversity of organic certifying bodies and symbols it is not surprising that organic shoppers get so confused. A single symbol that meant organic in every country in the world would undoubtedly be massively popular with consumers. However given that most certifying bodies have slightly different standards and approaches it is difficult to see how all the different organisations could be brought together ito a single universal standard. Supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are beginning to favour specific certifying bodies, particularly those accredited to IFOAM. Such initiatives are probably our best chance of clarifying the current confusion.

And just when you thought you understood organic…

Here are some other terms you may see on product labels. Biodynamic farming is an extension of organic farming that adds an extra spiritual element. All biodynamic food is organic, but not all organic food is biodynamic. The certifying body that certifies to biodynamic standards is called Demeter (UK6). Biodynamic agriculture lends itself especially well to wine production and the finest organic champagne is biodynamic. If biodynamic is “more than organic” then ICM (Integrated Crop Management) and Conservation Grade are “less than organic”. Both these schemes seek to minimise but not eliminate the use of pesticides and both are voluntary schemes not governed by legislation. In-conversion products are those on their way to becoming fully organic. When a conventional farmer decides to switch to organic methods there is under UK law a period of at least two years when the land undergoes a transition from conventional to organic production. These two years are termed the conversion period so crops grown during this time are referred to as in-conversion. Through buying in-conversion products you can help farmers go fully organic.

What you can and can’t say about organics

Organic food companies are very limited in law as to the claims they can make on their labels. The EU organic legislation states that “no claim may be made on the label that suggests to the purchaser that the (indication that the product is organic) constitutes a guarantee of superior organoleptic, nutritional or salubrious quality”. In other words claims that organic food are tastier, better for you or superior in quality are not permitted. Terms such as “GM-free” and “Pesticide-free’ are also discouraged – whilst organic food undoubtedly offers consumers their very best chance of avoiding GM or pesticides in these days of genetic pollution it is a very brave organic producer who makes such unequivocal claims. Preferred are statements such as “organic standards prohibit GM techniques and reliance on the routine use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers”. Over the last year the Advertising Standards Authority has taken a keen interest in the claims being made for organic food and has now published some guidelines as to what is acceptable at www.cap.org.uk.

And if you’re not happy with a label…

If you feel that the label of an organic product is unsatisfactory in any way then exercise your rights as an active consumer and take it further. You can write to the producer of the food, whose address by law must be printed on the product label. If you get no satisfaction there you can contact a certification body such as the Soil Association (www.soilassociation.org) who may be able to help. In the UK organic legislation is ultimately enforced by local authority Trading Standards Officers, whose telephone number is be listed in the your phone book. The overwhelming majority of organic products sold in the UK comply with the law, irrespective of which country they come from. Frequently organic labels give you much more information than they the minimum required by law. Often you will find information on where a product comes from, who has produced it and what makes it special – all part of the increased openness and respect for the consumer that distinguishes organic food and drink.