What's the big deal with ‘certified organic’ and is it any different to ‘organically grown or ‘chemical free’? In this guide we navigate you through the differences between these and other labels, commonly used to describe our food.
The Australian (certified) organic industry is growing rapidly at 15%+ annually. As with any growth area, there are plenty of people who want to jump on board to ‘cash in’, however with the many different labels and terms, it can be very hard to determine what is authentic and what is … well, not.
Whether you're into organics or not, you would have noticed the large range of terms describing fresh produce. This can be confusing and mis-leading. Here is a description of some of the more common descriptions used for produce:
Are they the same? Are they reliable? The simple answer is NO. There are very big differences in areas such as integrity of the seeds, how pesticides are used, farming practices, use of GE/GM products, adherence to standards, philosophy and basic gimmicking. Below is a brief outline of each of the above terms.
I think this is fairly self-explanatory, in that it usually refers to produce that has come straight from a farm. If you know your local farms and are satisfied that you are actually getting produce picked that day or the day before, then ‘farm fresh’ is spot on.
It does not however, make any reference (or claim) to having being grown organically, nor does it necessarily mean local. So when you see this label, all you need to look for is whether it was grown on a farm and does it look fresh. Don’t expect anything more.
This term is generally used to describe the farming of animals rather than fresh produce and its a minefield of labels, terms and levels of ‘certification’. Each animal is covered by different standards and there are even different levels of certification within each of those standards. It is too much to cover here so we will write it all down and post it separately.
For our family, I will buy certified organic meat and eggs over free-range because it will ensure the following:
- no growth promoters
- not grain fed
- no antibiotics
- highest levels of animal welfare (extremely variable under FR)
- no GM/GE feed
- no feedlots (intensive farming)
These practices are NOT necessarily covered or guaranteed by the term Free-Range.
If you are faced with Free Range being your only choice (no certified organic available), look for the “Humane Choice” certification as I believe this has the highest FR standards.
This is a term used very loosely in the Australian market. It's used by unscrupulous suppliers and also suppliers who don't want to become 'Certified' Organic. It's a huge grey area because the only regulation or standard a producer can be “Chemical Free” is to be certified organic.
The questions left unanswered by the 'Chemical Free' claim are:
- What chemicals are used? As even certified organic farming allows some natural based insecticides for pest control.
- Do they spray the 'soil' but not the 'Fruit' (What about overspray?)
- Are the soils nurtured through sustainable methods?
- Are the crops free from GE/GM (genetic engineering or genetic modification)?
An example of not knowing the truth in labelling is this example:
A friend in QLD (Aust) visited a local farm who proudly proclaimed they were chemical free. However she was told not to let her toddler play in the soil between the rows of crops as that is where the chemicals had been sprayed.
So the ‘chemical free’ claim was technically correct, in that the crops weren’t directly sprayed, but the soil around the root systems WERE sprayed. I find that very disappointing to the point of deceptive.
In a similar way to “Farm Fresh”, if you know the farmer directly and can vouch for the integrity of this statement in regard to chemicals, then great. Otherwise I believe the ‘Chemical Free’ label gives no more certainty of purity than any other conventional produce.
The term ‘organic’ can be used domestically (in Australia) with little regulation. It can be used to suggest an ingredient that was derived from the earth, or used simply to appeal to our desire to make a ‘greener’ or healthier purchase.
This equally applies to ‘organic’ produce at the local farmers market, ‘organic’ meat on a shelf, or ‘organic’ shampoo in the supermarket. There is no assurance that what you are being marketed meets any organic, green, healthy, ethical or socially-responsible standard, any more than any other product.
This may be an affront to the producers who do indeed farm ‘organically’, but that herein lies the problem. There is nothing AT ALL to distinguish their produce or product from every other product out there – unless they choose to be certified organic.
Based on the conversations Ben and I have had with producers, there are several reasons a produce doesn't get certified.
- Not quite as organic as certification requires.
- Not prepared to meet the certifier’s requirements especially in paper trails.
- Cost – some farmers claim it is too expensive to be certified, however each certifying body has different price ranges for different scale farms and stages of production.
- Disgruntled with certifying bodies. Some producers say they don’t want anything to do with the certifiers, as they know they are doing the ‘right’ thing. Only problem is, the consumer doesn’t know that. Certification is the only way for the end purchaser to know they have farmed according to the Organic Standards.
Most of these reasons could be justified in some way, however at the end of the day, there is no assurance to the consumer that this produce is actually any more organic than ‘farm fresh’ or ‘chemical free’. By simply stating “Grown Organically” can leave the term wide open to abuse.
I believe ‘Grown Organically’ carries more integrity if you know the farmer or regularly visit their farm. But how many of us can do that? If you want to know for sure the quality of the potential purchase, then see the next label…
Certified Organic (including Bio-dynamic)
Organic Certification is defined as “a regulatory and audit system aimed at providing guidelines and rules (known as Standards) for those wishing to become producers, processors or retailers/wholesalers/ exporters of organic products.”
To go further, one of Australia’s leading certifying bodies says:
“Organic and biodynamic farming means farming in a way which cares for the environment, without relying upon synthetic chemicals and other unnatural interventionist approaches. Hence, organic food comes from organic farms utilising the best of both traditional agriculture and modern techniques, using nature and natural processes as its bedrock.”
Certified organic is the best way to be assured that you are actually getting what you pay for, says, “Customers can have a degree of confidence that the label ‘certified organic’ has substance to it. It’s not completely subjective, being supported by third-party rules and regulations.”
Producers are audited – including random audits – in both their practices and their purchases by the relevant certifying body. Accredited producers must also meet higher standards across a range of areas such as:
- high animal welfare
- no animal testing of end product (manufacturing),
- natural methods of pest and disease control,
- no permitted use of Genetically Modified (GM) or Engineered (GE) substances or ingredients, and
- utilise a higher level of ecological, sustainable and ethical land use.
What is Biodynamic?
Bio-dynamic farming actually goes further in its application of holistic and ecological methods. It would be fair to commit a separate article to be written about Bio-dynamics, but until then, if a product has the “Demeter” or “BDRI” certification, not only is it certified organic, but it is also farmed above and beyond. Important to note, certified organic does NOT mean bio-dynamic, however certified Bio-dynamic (Demiter) DOES also mean certified organic.
Australia has very high standards for organic certification. There are currently 6 certifying bodies within Australia and it is these logos that you really need to look for:
National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA)
Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
Organic Food Chain (OFC)
Bio-dynamic Research Institute (BDRI)
Safe Food Queensland (SFQ)
In conclusion, there are many labels out there trying to trip you up and confuse you in your quest for a pure, organic product. I believe if you want to ensure you are getting an organic product, look for one of the certification logos above. If you want free-range meat, look for that certification (list earlier).
Certification has been established for a really good reason and there are plenty of check points to ensure suppliers meet their obligations when they hold organic certification. If you are not sure, ask questions - of the supplier or the certifying body, or ask to see the certification of the product. I believe organic certification is meant to be a fairly transparent process and as such, one that is easier to trust. There will always be the spoilers out there, those trying to flout the system, but as long as we keep insisting on the highest standards, and keep asking questions, those spoilers will have a harder time getting through.
At One Table, all of our produce and over 99% of our grocery holds organic certification because that is where our standard starts. Combine that with our purchasing philosophy and you can be further assured of sensational, fresh produce and excellent variety and quality of grocery.
I hope I have cleared up some of this confusion of the different terms used in the ‘organic’ sphere, to help you make healthy choices for yourself and your family.
Leave us your comments/questions below :)
 Australian Organic Market Report 2014 - Research by Swinburne University of Technology, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Mobium Group Commissioned by Australian Organic Ltd Funded by Horticulture Australia Ltd using voluntary contributions from Australian Organic Ltd and matched funds from the Australian Government
 Non-certified grocery items include where certification is unobtainable e.g. salt and Soda Bicarbonate, or where there is no certified organic alternative available. In this case, we still look thoroughly at the product prior to inclusion and it is a rare occurrence.