THE ORGANICS industry is finally to have a single standard that many hope will protect shoppers from being duped by false labels.
No longer a cottage industry, organics are worth $500million a year in Australia, with consumption growing at 25 per cent to 40 per cent every year.
“Organic water” is the product cited most often as making a mockery of the system, contributing to cynicism and distrust.
Australia does have a standard for exported organics, but not for domestic products so there is nothing to stop any producer claiming to be “organic”. Even among foods that are certified organic, the system is not consistent. Australia has eight certifying groups, which use their own criteria.
Organic Federation of Australia chairman Andre Leu cites chickens and eggs that have been certified organic despite the use of synthetic amino acids, and organic water a product that he says no reputable organic standard anywhere in the world would allow.
“How do you produce organic water? It’s a nonsense and at the moment under our current system you can’t put a stop to it,” he says.
“Our concern is we have a $500million industry that’s open to abuse. There’s massive integrity in this system at the moment, but it’s been based on a handshake agreement.
“[It’s] not a niche market. It’s one of fastest growing areas of food retail in the world. We really need systems in place to ensure the continued integrity of the system.”
The chairman of one of the country’s big certifiers, the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, George Devrell, says mislabelling is rife. And he says there are also plenty of growers who call their product “organic” when they sell it at market because they’ve grown it without chemicals and sprays, but these products are a long way from meeting full organic requirements.
NASAA supports the move to a new standard, but the biggest certifier, Australian Certified Organic, is vehemently opposed. ACO is owned by Biological Farmers of Australia, which has about two-thirds of the market and is at the centre of the controversies about certified water and chickens.
Spokesman Dr Andrew Monk says Leu’s peak group is “dysfunctional and unrepresentative”, and he dismisses the move towards a single national standard as “absolute smoke and mirrors crap”.
“We are completely unconvinced it will be an improvement and, if anything, it will be a retrograde step,” he says. “We’ve been calling this an emperor with no clothes and an absolute con job.”
His main concern is that under the current system, shoppers at least know that when they buy a NASAA-certified product, or an ACO-certified product, it has met certain standards (even if they differ somewhat).
But unless the new national standard is passed into law which he believes it will not be producers will find it easier under the proposed new system to claim organic credentials that a product does not have.
“If there was a move that was going to create a better regulatory environment, of course we’d be for it. But we know fundamentally this is not. In the absence of mandatory certification, there’s just red lights flashing everywhere. What’s being proposed is to develop a standard which will take an existing clause that mandates certification and turn it into a voluntary standard.”
Most of the eight certifiers use the exports standard as the basis for their regimes. But last year, Monk’s group, Australian Certified Organic, went its own way, upsetting others in the field.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported last year that at least five firms selling bottled water had paid about $1100 each to be certified by Australian Certified Organic, which also certified chickens that others say are not truly organic.
But Monk denies ACO allowed the water bottlers to claim they were organic. What they got was the right to describe their water as a “Biological Farmers-approved product”, not as certified organic. He says if there’s any water still claiming to be organic, it’s illegal.
As for chicken, he says all ACO did was match American and Japanese standards for organic chickens. The Australian export standard is tougher than standards in the US and Japan, disadvantaging Australian farmers.
He agrees mislabelling exists, but says the main concern is at farmers’ markets and among products that haven’t been certified. Here, at least, there is agreement. Leu also says that overall, fraud is negligible. As long as consumers look for products certified by an accredited group, they can be fairly confident.
Standards Australia has set up an industry committee with an independent chairman, Craig Sahlin (who works for the NSW Food Authority) to prepare the new standard, to be finalised next year. After that, it’s up to governments to make it law.
When it comes to organics, Canberra retailers operate nearly as much in the dark as shoppers, and they welcome the move to a single standard. Supabarn probably has the biggest range of organics of any Canberra supermarket. Marketing manager George Kubitzky says Supabarn’s organic range has increased 10-fold in the past two years alone. But he says given the differences in the way organics are certified, it’s hard to know which is the most reliable and strictly controlled.
“There generally has always been a basic trust placed in the fact that if a label says it’s organic then it meets the basic standard,” he says. “As long as organisations are accredited, either here or overseas, then we don’t go past that.”
Owen Pidgeon, who owns the Loriendale organic apple orchard near Hall, supports the plan for a single standard but shares Monk’s concerns that unless it is passed into law it will allow “people of ill-repute” who are in the business to “make a quick buck,” to continue using the word organic.
He’s also concerned to ensure the Australian regime doesn’t simply mirror overseas standards, but takes into account particular Australian growing conditions. In Europe, for example, the industry is drastically reducing the allowable copper in sprays for organic fruit trees.