Organic Articles: Food Labels – Beyond the Law

The Organic Consultancy

Food Labels – Beyond the Law

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 edition of Organic Business.

The organic sector prides itself on informing consumers about the true nature of organic food and drink products via clear and informative labelling, usually going some way beyond the minimum legal requirements. I have always regarded the sort of openness and honesty shown on organic product labels as no less than organic consumers deserve.

Currently there is a debate within the Soil Association as to how much additional on-pack information we should provide. I am part of the team working on this project so I was very interested in a recent seminar held by The Guild of Health Writers entitled “Food Fraud: Are We Being Conned by Food Labels?”. A succession of speakers from the FSA, the Consumers Association, Sustain and Unilever explained how consumers were being systematically mislead and perplexed by current food labels. The litany of labelling sins cited by speakers included undeclared ingredients (via the infamous “25% rule”), hidden processing aids and additives and no country of origin labelling. It is unsurprising that a recent report from The Journal of Consumer Studies suggested that fewer than one in five shoppers read the label ingredients list and almost no-one looked at the nutritional information section.

For some time the Soil Association has required all licensees to declare the constituents of all compound ingredients such as margarine in full. The new revision of the Soil Association standards recommends even greater disclosure – the type of vegetable oil and starch is to be specified and processing aids are declared. More controversial are the recommendations that country of origin of primary ingredients are declared even in multi-ingredient products and that hidden processing methods are declared on the label.

There is a danger to being so open. Where an organic tomato soup label declares “this product has been homogenised and sterilised” there is a risk that a consumer might buy the non-organic version instead, believing (incorrectly) that no such processing methods have been applied. If organic baked beans admit to containing a permitted processing aid such as calcium chloride will consumers opt for the non-organic version where the presence of calcium chloride is undeclared on the label? Getting the balance right here is going to be difficult. But once again the organic food sector is leading the rest of the food industry in responding to consumer concerns. Official recognition of the organic sector as best-practice labelling pioneers would be very welcome. Let’s have an FSA campaign that says “If You Really Want To Know What’s In Your Food Buy Organic!” .

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy