Organic Articles: Organic Catering Standards: Half-Baked or Well Done?

The Organic Consultancy

Organic Catering Standards: Half-Baked or Well Done?

Simon Wright
The Organic Consultancy

The dramatic increase in retail sales of organic food and drink has prompted the catering industry to start going organic. But what reassurance do diners have that food served in pubs, bars, cafes and restaurants is really organic? Simon Wright of The Organic Consultancy finds out how organic eateries are currently certified, and hears from the famous restauranteurs who want a very different approach. This article originally appeared in organiclife magazine for September / October 2002

Recent media coverage has speculated that there may be problems with UK organic catering outlets which claim to be organic but are not. It has attracted the interest of the Local Authority Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services (LACOTS), who speak for the country’s trading standards officers and who are concerned that some catering outlets serving organic food are not registered and inspected by organic certifying bodies such as the Soil Association. But do all restaurants have to be certified in this way – even those serving only one or two organic items? The answer is yes, according to Francis Blake, Standards Director of The Soil Association. “Strictly speaking under EU organic regulation 2092/91 the legal requirements for running an organic catering company or restaurant are exactly the same as if you are running an organic food processing factory, as there is preparation of food out of sight of the customer. If that operation is claiming organic status for the food they must be registered and inspected. So strictly speaking restauranteurs who mention that they have organic items on their menus but who are not registered and annually inspected by one of the eleven UK organic certifying bodies are breaking the law.”

Applying the EU regulation to restaurants has proved very difficult, owing to fast ingredient turnover and daily changing menus. Accordingly the Soil Association launched their own organic catering standards in April 2002. The plan is to see how workable the regulations are throughout 2002, then launch them to the catering trade at the end of this year, and to consumers in 2003. The Soil Association organic catering regulations define three possible levels of certification, based on what is claimed on the menu:

  1. Everything on the menu is organic, as in a fully organic restaurant
  2. Individual dishes are described as organic, for example organic steak, organic peas and organic potatoes
  3. One menu item is labelled as organic, for example organic salmon

The Soil Association’s approach has been criticised by two of Britain’s leading chefs. Antonio Carluccio, who owns a chain of nine Italian restaurants in London, said he would rather remove organic food from his menu than pay for a licence. He told the Observer “I find the idea completely appalling. Part of the problem is we don’t have the amount of food that would be required for proper organic status. I sell organic produce when I find the right stuff, but then I cannot continue because I don’t have enough of it. I wouldn’t want a licence. I don’t believe in it.” Anthony Worrall Thomson is an even sterner critic. He used to run his own organic restaurant, but closed it after claiming that he couldn’t source enough high-quality British organic ingredients. Nowadays he serves organic ingredients in his restaurants but refuses to be inspected and certified. “I don’t think I’m breaking the law because I say I have organic farmed salmon, or next week that I’ve got organic strawberries. I am buying organic produce therefore I tell the customer that they are organic. And at the end of the day can you really be hailed as a criminal for telling the truth? I very much doubt it. I would love to be certified organic but I can’t be 100% because some organic produce is just not up to scratch, and I would be compromising my cooking abilities by just buying some of these products. So what I’d like to see is some association, hopefully the Soil Association, to come in and audit my books once a year and then give me a percentage rating, say something like… I might be a 55% organic restaurant – at least the public that way would know you were making the effort.”

“If other people want to claim they’re organic without proving it the bottom is going to fall out of the market” responds Geetie Singh. Together with her partner Esther Boulton, Geetie runs three fully organic London pubs – The Duke of Cambridge in Islington, The Crown in Hackney and The Pelican in Notting Hill Gate. As one of the organic catering pioneers Geetie has no time for those who wish to be unregulated. “The whole point of organic is that it is fully traceable. We chose to be certified by the Soil Association as we feel they’re the only ones truly fighting for the organic movement. We are proud to have the Soil Association symbol outside our pubs.”

Esther and Geetie’s pubs now serve 4000 customers every week. They have been pleasantly surprised by their success. “We expected that people wouldn’t be particularly interested in the fact that we’re organic so we didn’t put organic anywhere in the pub to begin with. Then people couldn’t find us so we had to put the word organic up on the sign outside but that’s all we’ve done. But people are very interested in the fact that we’re organic. People come here because its really good food and the fact that it is organic is a plus. Our customers say ‘I started eating organic here and now I buy it in shops’ so it is definitely part of our aim to convert people to organics.”

Initially there were problems with recruiting chefs. “But now we have a good reputation in London people want to come and work for us. Our chefs had such difficulties working with organics – when the supply goes wrong they can’t just go somewhere else, they can only use these few Soil Association approved suppliers. But chefs have become more educated about organics since we opened. Now we’re 100% organic other than fish and game, plus salt and baking powder.” Even here Esther and Geetie have written their own sourcing policy on sustainable fish. They are pleased with how the Soil Association catering standards have turned out, having worked on the group that put the regulations together. “They still need simplifying. We are licensed to use a list of organic ingredients, rather than having individual recipes approved. Start-up is difficult and each time a new organic product comes on the market we have to apply to have it added to our license. Dishes change mid-service if some ingredient runs out so it is very difficult to keep precise records. We think the most important standards issue is unannounced spot checks.”

“Our expectations have been more than fulfilled – all three of our pubs are successful, with different characters, reflecting local areas. We work to industry standard margins and we’re no more expensive than any other good quality restaurant. We have a twice daily change of menu partly because of the organic supply situation – also it gets local people to come here more often, we have a few who come here twice a day, five days a week !”

At the other end of the scale to Esther and Geetie are Sodhexo, the worlds largest catering group. Sodhexo have now set up Organica, a specialist organic catering division. Chairman Stephen McManus explains that Organica was set up in response to growing public demand and in response to a general move towards higher quality standards within the catering industry. “Many of our clients are interested in healthy eating, animal welfare, the environment and what they actually put in their bodies. We wanted to be the first hospitality company in the UK to achieve organic certification, which we achieved in January 2002.” Today Organica offers upmarket organic catering at venues including Lords Cricket Ground, Ascot and the Natural History Musuem. In its first year Organica aims to cater for around twenty-five events. Menus are supervised (and sometimes cooked) by well-known chef Steven Saunders

“We got off to a slow start” admits Stephen, caused in part by a lack of knowledge about organic food from both suppliers and clients. Other difficulties have included acquiring sufficient quantities of organic produce to the correct standards plus a smaller market place for the sector as a whole post-September 11th. Because Sodhexo are constantly working in different venues they face a much higher degree of inspection than a restaurant or pub. Currently every new venue has to be inspected by the Soil Association before Sodhexo can serve any organic food, a considerable burden in terms of time and cost. Despite this Stephen is firmly behind the need for strong organic regulation and regards it as an asset – “it equates to a guarantee of quality for our clients and the public at large”.

There are “tremendous learnings” for the rest of the Sodhexo group. “It has created huge interest and much greater awareness of the issues ‘from farm to fork’. The chefs from Organica have made farm site visits so as to get to know their suppliers and experience organic farming at first hand, a first in our industry.” Future plans include building Organica to the point where there can be an organic offer across the thousands of Sodhexo outlets throughout the UK, including catering in the high-street, in canteens, at railway stations and at airports. Sodhexo also cater for schools and hospitals, and Stephen would very much like to be able offer an Organic Lunch Box scheme to all schools throughout the UK.

Other countries are keeping a keen eye on the success of organic restaurants in the UK. Australian Larry Mitchell recently visited London, researching the market ahead of the launch of his Melbourne organic caf Invita in October. ” We have excellent local produce that in season is comparatively cheap compared to London prices. Organic produce does command a premium here as in the UK, but there are times when it is as cheap as conventional produce. We do not have the import opportunities as the UK does for things in short supply or out of season, and having a low exchange rate versus the pound, US dollar or Euro we are forced to go local. London has the bonus of being a very large city and you have a culture of valuing organics and GM free food more than we do in Australia. Our organics retail is still less than 1% of total food sales. We have a lot of work to do to establish our market.” Although in Australia certification of organic cafes is optional, Larry is convinced that the way forward for organic catering is via strong, well-regulated organic standards. Larry has chosen to be certified by Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA). “They have been very proactive over the past year and I believe that our involvement with them will good for the industry as well as Invita in setting standards that are practical, achievable and do credit to the industry. Initially I believe that organic certification will make life more difficult, however, I believe that the promotion that we get will give us an extra lift that will after six months make the journey worth while.”

With the amount of food consumed outside the home continuing to rise, the catering industry is going to become increasingly important to the organic sector. Those caterers and restauranteurs who have entered the market with 100% organic menus are convinced that the Soil Association are right to insist on regular inspection and licensing of any establishment that serves any organic food. The new challenge is to devise a system which works for the pub or caf who would like to offer a single ‘Organic Dish Of The Day’ but who cannot handle the cost and complexity of full organic certification. Everyone would benefit from a regulatory system which allowed the UK’s pubs, cafes, restaurants and canteens to offer at least some organic food and drink through a system rigorous enough to deter fraud but flexible enough to meet the needs of the growing organic catering community.

For more information

Organic pubs

Organica organic catering

Organic catering standards

Invita organic caf