Organic Foods: Looking beyond the label

Organic goods are everywhere - but who decides whether a product is worthy of the name?
Organic is a word whose time has come. You can even buy a shampoo of that name which promises to penetrate your hair roots with ingredients "essential in nature for true shine". Look at the label, however, and you will stumble across a bewildering list of largely unpronounceable chemical ingredients. So what is exactly is an organic product?

Health and beauty is one of the areas where until now nobody has thought it necessary to say what we mean by organic. But "organic" has turned into a highly charged word. It has come to signify not merely how a product is produced and manufactured but a way of looking at the world. And with anything organic now apparently able to command an enthusiastic consumer response and a sizeable market premium, the word needs protection. The Soil Association, Britain's main organic certifying body, is currently trying to decide on a code for the health and beauty business, particular products like herbal medicines and supplements, which would for the first time determine what can and cannot be described as organic.

In food, organic means that no artificial chemical fertilisers and pesticides have been used in production. Organic farmers place the emphasis on soil health, rotating crops and using animal manure. Animals are reared without the drugs, antibiotics and growth-promoters that are now routine in conventional livestock farming. Animal welfare standards are high - animals have access to fields and generous space inside. Not only is organic food free of genetically modified ingredients but certain processes, such as irradiation, hydrogenation and fumigation, are also banned.

Much of this is now governed by law, specifically an EU regulation of 1991 which built on existing schemes, and enforced by trading standards officers. In the UK, the Register of Organic Food Standards (UKROFS), which is part of the Ministry of Agriculture, oversees the bodies charged with the task of setting standards and certifying that products comply with the regulations. The Soil Association is the major standard-setting body; the others are the Organic Food Federation, Organic Farmers and Growers, the Biodynamic Agricultural Association, the Scottish Organic Producers' Association, and Irish Organic Farmers and Growers.

Under EU law, processed foods described directly as organic must have a minimum of 95 per cent organic ingredients by weight. If a product contains between 70 and 95 per cent of organic ingredients, it can be labelled "Made with Organic Ingredients", with the actual percentage listed.

Yet arguments have always raged about what constitutes organic produce. And with organic food sweeping all before it at present, there are fears that standards may be diluted in an attempt to allow in bigger food producers and processors. A storm of controversy greeted recent proposals by the US Department of Agriculture to allow the use of toxic sludge and genetically modified organisms in organic farming and although the proposals were dropped, the USDA then published new ones which would allow many industrial farming practices, including routine antibiotic use, to be classed as organic.

Consumers buying organic food can also be confident that their choice has wider environmental benefits - research has shown that the mixed habitats favoured by organic farmers, coupled with the absence of chemicals, is good for wildlife. Central to the organic vision is the idea that a healthy nature - and particularly a healthy soil - produces healthy food and healthy consumers. Or, as the first organic standards laid down by the Soil Association in 1967 declared, "The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends."