Melissa Kidd (Soil Association Information Officer) gives expert video advice on: How can you tell it's organic?; Who decides whether something can be labelled organic? and more...
What does organic mean?
Organic means, in the most basic terms, that the food has been independently checked to meet organic standards. Today you see a lot of products termed 'natural', 'healthy', etc., but nobody knows what they mean, if anything. Organic is a term defined in EU law so anyone who wants to use that term on a food product has got to match strict standards. These organic standards govern absolutely everything concerning the production: how well the animals have been looked after; what can and can't be put onto or go into the organic products. Absolutely everything is checked. It's done with a view that organic is healthy. Therefore, if there's any sort of concern about an organic product that cause be a health problem, it's not allowed on the grounds of prudence.
What is organic food?
Organic food is food that comes from a system of farming whereby the routine use of chemicals is avoided. Farmers who want to build the fertility of their soils use natural methods like composted manure, and they rotate their crops around their farm. They also use natural methods for pest control, so they know about what eats what in nature; they know that lady bugs eat aphids, and they know that toads eat slugs. So they've got to be like nature's hotel managers. They've got to know what their pests like, and they've got to know what likes those pests so that basically, it's nature doing the work for them.
Who decides whether something can be labelled organic?
For something to be labelled as organic it has to be of agricultural origin to start with. The EU have also developed their own organic regulations, which sets basic standards. You also have individual certification bodies who set their standards over and above that for what can be labelled as organic. The Soil Association's standards for organic food are over and above the EU regulation in areas such as pesticide use, animal welfare, and nature conservation.
How does the Soil Association set its standards?
The Soil Association standards are based on an amalgamation of information; the best information from experts in the field, from the best practice from farmers who have got the wealth of experience of best practice, and also from what consumers actually expect from organic standards. So, it's a joining together. The issues are debated at our standards board. We have eight standards committees, and consultations take place when we have amendments proposed. These standards are continually changing and improving as more information comes to light. It's a really open, transparent, and thorough process.
How does the Soil Association check that its standards are being met?
Every person who has an organic licence is inspected once a year, and this inspection is a really thorough, rigorous process, so absolutely everything is checked. An inspector will go out to a farm; he knows what to look for; it's not just a paper trail. He knows what to look for on the farm. So, for example, if he walks into a field of cattle and they run away a little bit scared, then he knows that actually they're not really being used to human contact. Therefore he knows to look out for things like animal welfare problems because if they're not used to human contact then perhaps they're not being as well looked after as they should be. He knows what sort of stages crops should look like, so if they're growing very, very quickly at a certain time of year then that might be indicative of malpractice. So, it's not just a paper trail. It's very much a practical, hands-on looking to see what's going on on the farm. All the records are checked as well, and what happens is that we do something called a mass balance, which is where we have the recipe of, for example, sausages. We look to see in the records how many ingredients he's bought in, and we know what the quantities are, and then we'll know how many sausages he should have produced as a result. It's another way of checking whether any ingredients have been substituted.
If it's organic does it also mean it's free range?
Yes, absolutely, and a lot more as well. The aim of the organic animal welfare standards is that an animal should be able to express its natural behaviour. So to keep an animal cooped up tight is absolutely not what we do. So it also means that they must be able to free range. There are limits on the amount of birds or animals in the herd or flock. They must have a lot of space to move around inside. They are not routinely fed antibiotics. They are not fed GM ingredient, and they're not allowed to be mutilated, like to have their beaks trimmed, to have rings put through their noses or to have their tails docked.
Is there an international body to ensure that imported products are organic?
Any product that's being imported into the E.U. will have to meet the E.U. minimum standard for what is organic. In the E.U., there is the E.U. Body. Over and above that there's an international body called I.F.O.A.M. which is the International Federation of Agricultural Movements - catchy! That is like an umbrella organisation which is looking to harmonise international standards for organic food. They have high standards for whether imported food is organic or not, and the full I.F.O.A.M association is accredited to these standards.