Behind the eco labels: Organic

| 1st April 2007
All organic food must meet a common set of minimum standards, as defined by the EU. Each EU member state has a national control body; the United Kingdom Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS) regulates the activities of six certification bodies in the UK. The oldest and largest, the Soil Association (founded in 1946), currently undertakes 80 per cent of all certification in the UK and is arguably the organic label most trusted by consumers.

As a label and a concept, ‘organic’ has hit problems recently. Ideally, organic food should be locally produced, but around 56 per cent of organic food sold in the UK is imported.

Organic food shunted through conventional supermarket systems can be stored for extended periods before being put on the shelf, and thus may be less nutritious. The Soil Association recently announced its intention to withdraw certification from imported foods, in a bid to address the problem of organic air miles.

To cash in on a growing market, many large corporations have bought up small organic producers or begun producing and selling own-brand organic food. These corporations, dealing in high-volume goods, have exploited loopholes in the standards that, for example, allow them to raise dairy cows and chickens in confinement.

In the USA, for example, producers only need to give animals ‘access’ to outdoors; they don’t actually have to let them go out. Large producers are also allowed to feed animals on less than natural diets (such as prepared pellets) and use massive acreages to plant crops (thus encouraging monoculture). Things are better in the UK, but according to Viva!, the only organisation to set markedly higher standards for animal welfare is the Soil Association.

Finally, organic standards do not address the issue of worker welfare. According to a 2005 report by researchers at University of California Davis, a majority of 188 California organic farms surveyed did not pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans.

The Ecologist says

In the main, organic standards are among the highest available. You still have to read the label carefully, though. Generally, organic food labelling falls into one of two categories. Category 1 Organic products contain a minimum of 95 per cent organic ingredients by weight. Mostorganic products on sale in the UK fall into this category. Category 2 Special Emphasis products contain 70 to 95 per cent organic ingredients by weight. These products (e.g. tomato ketchup) can be labelled ‘Made with organic ingredients’. These percentages reflect the fact that some ingredients need not be or cannot be organic (e.g. water, yeast and salt).

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007

To find out the truth behind other Eco Labels click here


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