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General Health - What does organic really mean to you?

By Karen Wilson BSc(Hons) MSc NutMed

The last two decades have seen a growing interest in organic farming, animal husbandry techniques and the effect of agriculture on the environment. The result is a growing organic food industry, which, in many countries, is now clearly defined and protected by law. However, the law is by no means standardised across the globe, as explained below.

What is organic and how are standards maintained?

The Codex Committee on Food Labelling developed the following definition in 2001: ‘‘ ‘Organic’ is a labelling term that denotes that products have been produced in accordance with organic production standards and certified by a duly constituted certification body or authority. Organic agriculture is based on minimising the use of external inputs, avoiding the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Organic agriculture cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues, due to general environmental pollution. However, methods are used to minimise pollution of air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers are required to adhere to standards to maintain the integrity of organic agriculture products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimise the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Across the world, countries are beginning to introduce legislation to ensure these basic standards are maintained.

In Europe, organic legislation is harmonised to ensure that ingredients within, and entering, the EU have been produced to the same high standard. Other countries may have similar legislation to those in the EU but the requirements often differ from country to country and also between certification bodies within each country.

The EU recognises only two categories of organic product (other countries may have different definitions):

  • Organic products – those containing 95% or more organic agricultural ingredients by weight. The word ‘organic’ can appear in the product name (e.g. Organic Flax Seed Oil).
  • Products – those containing less than 95% organic agricultural ingredients. The individual organic ingredients can be identified but ‘organic’ cannot be used in the product name (e.g. contains organic apple powder). All other aspects of organic standards relating to composition and processing must be adhered to for this category of products, to show the organic nature of its ingredients.

To use the word ‘organic’ when describing foods, both the product and the supplier/manufacturer have to be certified by a competent body.

In the UK, certification bodies such as the Soil Association and Organic Food Federation are registered with DEFRA and all organic products have to be certified by one such organisation before they can be sold legally. 

The standards set by DEFRA conform to the minimum standards set by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).

DEFRA only lists eight countries outside the EU as having equivalent standards and the USA is not one of them. Outside this elite group of countries, all organic products require express permission from DEFRA prior to importation, as well as certification by an EU certifier before they can be sold legally.

Organic labels are changing

From July this year, a new ‘Community-wide’ organic symbol (see below) will start to appear on all EU certified organic products, in addition to the readily-identifiable certifying body’s logo and new certification numbers. The Organic Food Federation number for the UK becomes GB-ORG-04 (currently Organic Certification UK4).

EU ‘Community’ logo

In addition, where the Community logo is used, the source of the ingredients must be declared on the label in one of three  ways:

  1. ‘EU Agriculture’, where the agricultural raw material has been farmed in the EU.
  2. ‘Non-EU Agriculture’, where the agricultural raw material has been farmed in third countries (non-EU).
  3. ‘EU/Non-EU Agriculture’ where a part of the agricultural raw material has been farmed in the Community and a part of it has been farmed in a third country.

Where appropriate, the actual country names can be used instead and Higher Nature will be taking this approach wherever possible.

This will, hopefully, remove any doubt as to the provenance of ingredients in the future. Currently, there is scope for unscrupulous companies to label a product as sourced in the country where final processing occurs, when, in reality, the agricultural ingredient comes from the other side of the world.


Always look for products with a recognised EU certification or the new ‘Community’ logo, as this ensures that the product meets the highest organic standards and you will be certain that the quality has been tightly controlled.

Europe may be a level organic field, but the world most definitely is not. And, for once, Europe has it right.

Organic Regulations: EC 834/2007, EC 889/2008 and EC 1325/2008. 

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