Certified growers and industry are pushing for mandatory regulation and certification of organic produce in Australia to improve consumer confidence and secure the industry’s reputation.
- Australia’s organic industry contributes around $2.6 billion to the economy each year
- There is no mandatory regulation and legislation for organic-labelling on the domestic market
- The federal government formed an Industry Advisory Group to investigate domestic regulations
Australia’s organic industry contributes $2.6 billion to the country’s economy per year but producers and companies selling their produce on the domestic market do not have to be certified to label their product ‘organic’.
The peak industry body Australian Organic chief executive Niki Ford has been calling for strict reform of organic labelling standards and change to legislation for more than two years.
She said Australia lagged behind other countries without a consistent approach to organic production.
“In other developed nations, what countries obit by is a set of standards to utilise that claim [being organic],” Ms Ford said.
As attaining certification is a voluntary process in Australia and left up to each individual producer’s choice, consumers have no guarantee that ‘organic’ claims made are truthful, if the product has no accredited certification mark.
“Consumers have a level of caution when it comes to anything claiming organic and that has a negative effect on the industry from a consumer perspective,” Ms Ford said.
“I am sure many consumers have picked up a product in the store and have gotten home and read the label a bit more and might have found that the organic claim on the packing only was relevant to one ingredient in the actual product.”
She said due to no mandatory requirement for certification as an organic producer, it was ‘allowable under Australian consumer laws’ for that labelling system on packaging to occur.
“As long as there is an asterisk put before the product that is organic and there is something at the back of the label that suggest that that is the only part that is organic.”
Advisory group formed to investigate
If growers decide to attain certification for domestically sold organic product — Australia’s current regulatory framework provides six private certifiers that ensure they abide by the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce for export purposes.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced late last year the establishment of an Organics Industry Advisory Group to investigate whether Australia’s current domestic organic regulatory system was fit-for-purpose to facilitate industry development.
The $2.6 billion industry’s growth is predicted at 15 per cent each year until 2024-2025.
On its website the Department for Agriculture, Water and the Environment states fit-for-purpose regulation may provide greater efficiencies in the way industry operates and a framework to support industry growth.
Hefty costs for organic exports
For growers wanting to export their organic produce to overseas markets attaining mandatory organic certification is needed.
However, growers are required to pay several additional costs to meet specific regulations for each individual export country.
Angove Family Winemakers in South Australia has been exporting its certified organic wines to the US, Canada, European Union, China and Japan.
Yet, the company’s joint managing director Victoria Angove said it was a time consuming and expensive process to ensure they were audited to the required organic standards for each different export market.
“It is one that we value though because we do see great opportunity for growth in those export markets.
Ms Ford backed those concerns and said it was a costly and frustrating process for Australian organic produce exporters who have to pay additional costs for auditing to each export destination.
“With a consistent approach to organic in the domestic market, the government would be able to start negotiating equivalencies, where those additional costs wouldn’t need to be worn at an operator level,” Ms Ford said.
Instilling consumer confidence
Ms Angove believes third party audits were essential to verify organic claims and ensure consumers that they were truly getting what they were paying for and what had been written on the label.
“But there is this grey zone, there is an area of Australian consumer law that means that a company cannot mislead or deceive consumers on what is on the packaging.”
“If you don’t have legislation that really tightly defines what organic is, and what it is required to be, and how it is required to be made, then it is really difficult to prosecute people who may be making claims that are unable to be substantiated.”
She believed no having mandatory regulation of organic labelling and a clear definition of ‘organic’ in legislation made it difficult for the Australian Competition and Consumer watchdog (ACCC) ‘to prosecute or challenge those who may be making misleading claims.’
Ms Ford said mandatory regulation would leave no room for any misleading ‘organic’ claims.
“We know in a more ethically driven world from a consumer perspective people want to know where their product has been produce an it would provide absolute assurance,” Ms Ford said.
“If they can see that a certification mark has been acquired that each operator had gone through a rigorous audition process that happens every year.”