Organic Sector Update

What are the prospects for organic food and drink?


UK organic sales hit an all-time high of £2.2bn in 2017. Spend on organic food was up 6% on 2016 and surpassed the previous record for organic sales of £2.1bn set in 2008, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market 2018 Report (in partnership with Nielsen).

Chilled foods and deli products saw the single biggest increase at +21.3% sales by value. Fresh produce documented the highest value rise, adding in excess of £20m as the second-largest sector in organic. Meanwhile dairy products continued to claim the biggest share of the organic market, approaching 29% of all organic sales.

The Soil Association attributed the rises to an increasingly health-conscious society, with health a “key motivator for buying organic”. Consumers were also becoming more concerned with the provenance and traceability of food, due to media coverage of food safety issues such as fipronil in eggs, the 2 Sisters food hygiene scare and supermarkets using ‘fake farm’ names to market products, it claimed.

Supermarkets still accounted for the lion’s share of organic sales, achieving £1.49bn in 2017. However while organic sales in supermarkets grew faster than in 2016 at +4.2% they were still lagging behind in the growth of home delivery agents, independent retailers and foodservice which achieved +9.5%, +9.7% and +10.2% growth respectively. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose dominated the organic market in the mults, accounting for almost 70% of supermarket organic sales – although that figure was down from 2016 when they accounted for more than 80%.

What are the laws covering the supply of organic products?


In the EU, legislation covers all aspects of organic food and drink production. Initially this took the form of EU regulation 2092/91 (1991), which was translated into national legislation as the UK Organic Products Regulation (1992). This legislation lays down in detail how organic food must be produced, processed and packaged to qualify for the description ‘organic’.


In 1999, EC regulation 1804/1999 extended the initial EU organic regulations to cover livestock production (meat, eggs, poultry and dairy). In 2006-7 the regulation 2092/91 underwent a review, addressing the presence of genetically modified (GM) materials in organic food and the role of private organic certifying bodies. The European Commission adopted a new EU organic regulation 834/2007 in 2007. The main changes were:


  • Description of organic objectives and principles for the first time
  • Scope extended to cover aquaculture, wine, seaweed, yeast
  • Procedure for approving new substances as organic
  • Principles for food and feed processing
  • Risk-based inspection criteria
  • More flexible import criteria
  • Labelling – 70% limit removed
  • GM ingredients permitted at up to 0.9% (although the Soil Association and Organic Farmers & Growers are staying with an upper limit of 0.1% GM)


This regulation came into effect in 2009. A mandatory EU logo was implemented through regulation 271/2010, published in 2010.

How is the law policed?


The organic products regulation requires that anyone who wishes to produce organic food must first register with a certification body. In the UK there are currently eight such bodies, the best known of which are the Soil Association (Certification Code GB-ORG-05) and Organic Farmers & Growers (GB-ORG-02).


The certification body is responsible for ensuring that anyone who wants to produce organic food understands the legislation and has the necessary procedures and systems in place.


The certification bodies are in turn policed by the Advisory Committee on Organic Standards (ACOS), through the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The organic products regulation is enforced by local authority trading standards officers. All other legislation that applies to non-organic food also applies to organic food production.


What are the stages to becoming a certified organic processor?


  • Fill out the initial application form supplied by the certification body. Note that on the initial application it is necessary to list the recipes of the anticipated launch range of products. It is relatively straightforward to make changes and add additional products at a later date.
  • The certification body sends an inspector to inspect the manufacturing premises. In an operation where both organic and non-organic products are manufactured, the major point of concern is that there is no contamination from non-organic to organic. All systems and physical procedures need to be designed to achieve separation by space (production lines dedicated to organic production) or time (organic production following a full clean-down).
  • The inspector submits a report to the certification committee of the certification body. If the report is approved, a certificate is issued; the operation can then begin supplying organic products and using the symbol of the certification body on-pack. Note that it is illegal to produce organic food and drink without first going through this procedure.
  • The certification body carries out an annual inspection of premises, systems and production records to ensure all of these procedures are followed.


Do products have to be totally organic?


Under the new EU organic legislation, the former special emphasis category has been discontinued. This means products labelled as organic must contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients by weight.


The regulation specifies the following:

  • Only certain non-organic ingredients can be used and these are specified in Annex VI.
  • If a particular ingredient is not available in organic form it is possible to apply for derogation to use the non-organic version for a limited period.
  • Some ingredients, such as water, need not be organic.
  • The use of artificial or irradiated ingredients is specifically prohibited.


And what about Brexit ?


The Soil Association has considered the likely future of UK organics post Brexit and its 2017 report on organic supply chains notes both threats and opportunities:


“There are significant export growth opportunities for the UK’s organic sector that should

be considered as the Government negotiates the UK’s future trading relationship with

the EU. Trade arrangements between the UK and EU should allow for unimpeded access to and from EU markets for food and agricultural products including by ongoing

regulatory alignment.


The organic supply chain’s fundamental challenges relating to scale and structure

are set to become increasingly complex. Add to this uncertainty surrounding Brexit and food inflation and distributors, producers and chains in this rapidly expanding market are going to be vulnerable to a series of new and difficult tensions. The UK must reduce reliance on organic imports and increase domestic organic production where products can be grown in the UK.”