EU proposes tightening standards

The European Union Commission is considering tightening its organic standards to increase consumer trust in organics.

Organics is big business and it’s growing rapidly, 500,000 hectares of land are converted to organic every year in the Union. The Commission perceives ensuring steady growth and guaranteeing the credibility of organics are crucial for the industry’s long term survival.

If the changes are implemented they will have ramifications for certified organic businesses that export to the EU.

The EU’s Action Plan for the future of Organic Production outlines 18 actions including periodical surveys of consumer awareness, increasing organic R&D, implementing an organic fraud prevention policy and exploring trade agreements with leading organic partners. It’s been 10 years since the EU’s last Action Plan for organic food and farming and it intends to have a new framework in place by 2020.

Perhaps the most relevant part of the Action Plan to Australian exporters is the reference to animal nutrition and seed sourcing. The Commission says, “Too many exceptions to the rules, some of which have become obsolete in the context of changed market conditions, risk undermining the integrity of organic farming.”

The Commission will require all livestock feed and seed for production to be certified organic. Currently producers can use conventional feed and seed if organic options aren’t available. If the EU tightened these requirements Australian exporters would also have to comply.  According to the Australian Certified Organic Standard producers must use certified organic feed unless special circumstances such as drought declaration are imposed. In Australia it is difficult to always source certified organic seed because the organic industry in Australia is simply not big enough to supply enough organic seed.

The Commission has proposed research that understands how to overcome the obstacles and the establishment of a seed database for Europe.

Spokesperson for Australian Organic Joanne Barber says this is not the first time the EU Commission has talked about tightening its standards. She says, “The EU has been talking about these issues for a long time now so we don’t know if it will implement any changes. If it does they could take years to achieve.”

Australian Certified Organic has an equivalency agreement with the EU making it easier for its clients to export organic into its countries. “We also benchmark our standards against the EU,” says Joanne. So Australia will watch any changes carefully and clients exporting to the EU will have to comply with those changes.

The EU says it will also increase scrutiny on imported products to make sure they meet the definitions of organic food and farming. It’s mostly referring to products imported from developing countries where it’s seeing an increase in the fraudulent use of the EU organic certification logo. Australian products aren’t expected to be under suspicion unless their ingredients come from developing countries.

Australian Certified Organic’s strict standards and ingredient trace back system should overcome concerns.

Australian Certified Organic already has in place initiatives that address consumer trust, such as annual audits of companies (which do result in companies losing organic certification) and product sampling for residues. Australian Organic also commissions a comprehensive market report on the state of the industry and organic consumer patterns every two years.

We know from the Australian Organic Market Report 2012 that trust in organics is a barrier towards buying organics so we implemented an awareness campaign helping people understand what organic means and advising them to look for a certification logo like Australian Certified Organic to know that what they’re buying is truly organic.

The Australian Certified Organic logo is the most recognised organic logo in Australia. Two thirds of consumers say the presence of a logo such as this increases their trust in the product, while over a third would not buy a product that is not certified.

The number one barrier (as reported by 80 per cent of interviewees) however continues to be the price of organic goods. This is changing as the industry grows and the Australian Organic Market Report 2014, which will be released this year, will show just how much.

Australian Organic is increasing support to organic businesses by implementing an onboarding program designed to assist companies that are converting to organics.

Some in the European organic community are critical of the Action Plan, claiming that it’s a PR strategy designed to make the public think that by introducing new regulations it will address trust issues, when in fact large scale fraud problems are the reason behind mistrust.

Whether the Action Plan is implemented now or in a decade’s time the writing is on the wall so if you’re in the business of exporting to the EU take a look.

For the full report see http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/organic/eu-policy/european-action-plan/2004/index_en.htm