How Do Organic Standards Work?
How do Organic Standards Work?
Next time you visit a supermarket, take a look at the food labels. You'll see plenty of claims about sustainability and welfare, but amongst them, the organic logo stands out as the only one which is underpinned by law.
Here you'll find information about how organic food is certified, and why you can have confidence in the organic food you buy.
Organic food is certified - an independent guarantee
All organic food sold in the EU has to be certified by registered certification bodies. The Soil Association charity has a wholly owned subsidiary, Soil Association Certification Limited, which is the UK’s largest organic certification body.
Certification offers you an independent, third-party assurance that the products you purchase have been produced to full organic standards, all the way from the field to your shopping basket.
Organic farmers and food processors abide by rules, or standards. They are independently inspected and certified, which involves an inspector actually visiting their farms and factories to see what is going on.
The standards for organic food are laid down in European law. In some areas we don't feel these go far enough, so we require organic producers certified by the Soil Association to meet even higher standards.
How certification works
For a food product to be called organic, every stage in the supply chain has to meet organic standards and be certified to prove it.
All organic farms and food companies are inspected at least once a year. They also need robust systems in place and paperwork that shows the standards have been met the rest of the time. The inspections are thorough. For an idea of what's involved, read this blog by Soil Association Certification licensee Coleshill Organics.
Once organic farms and food companies are certified as organic, they are issued with a certificate and a trading schedule which lists all the crops, livestock or products they are certified to produce organically. This certificate acts like a passport and is necessary to prove the organic status of the goods when they are sold on to other businesses.
When products are imported from countries outside of the EU, they not only have to be accompanied by an organic certificate, but they also need to have a Certificate of Import. This verifies that the product has been produced to organic standards equivalent to those in the EU.
To ensure that organic certification is carried out consistently, even the inspectors are inspected every year! Checks are made by various accreditation bodies, including UKAS, and certification bodies are required to make regular reports of their activities to Defra.
This might sound like a complex process with a lot of paperwork, but it’s designed to ensure that organic food comes from verified sources and is food you can trust. The system needs to work whether you’re buying veg directly from a farmer or something like a product containing five spice, where ingredients may have come from lots of different smallholders on the other side of the world.
What are the Soil Association higher standards?
EU law ensures that all organic food and drink sold in shops meets strict standards, shown by the green leaf logo on labels.
The Soil Association wants to ensure the highest possible standards of animal welfare, environmental and wildlife protection, so we have our own higher – or stricter – standards in key areas. The standards put our principles into practice and are at the heart of our work.
We’ve also developed standards for areas which aren’t already covered by EU law, such as health and beauty and textiles. This is so you can be sure you're buying genuine organic products. We work internationally with like-minded organisations in order to help make our positive impact global.
Farms and businesses that meet our standards can display our symbol and certification number (GB-ORG-05). Soil Association Certification Ltd is the UK’s oldest and most experienced, and licenses over 70% of the organic food on sale in the UK.
How are our higher standards applied worldwide?
Our certification business is one of a family of organic certification bodies (CBs) worldwide working together to ensure that strict organic standards are being met the world over. We certify around half the organic farming in the UK but, in other countries, we rely on other CBs. The availability of all sorts of organic foods, from bananas to ginger, but also ingredients like flour or oil that are often made at a large scale, relies on imports from companies certified by these other CBs.
When we set a new higher standard for Soil Association farms, we need to decide whether it also applies to all ingredients, including those certified by other CBs, or only to the farms and food businesses we certify directly. For some products like spices, which may be farmed by lots of small-scale producers, get mixed from different organic sources and are often bought in small quantities, it would be almost impossible to make sure every CB involved could provide evidence they met a new higher standard we introduced. Requiring this for all ingredients would simply mean ruling such ingredients out of organic products.
For other ingredients like meat, the picture can be simpler, and other CBs can show that farms have met our higher standards.
Soil Association standards are among the best in the world
This is how organic certification works the world over. We’re proud that the Soil Association has one of the most rigorous and transparent certification processes we’ve come across.
We have higher standards because we want to drive change. The Soil Association had standards on livestock, wine production and fish farming before they became enshrined in EU law.
Our standards are still driving change today. For example, preventative antibiotic use is restricted under the EU regulation, but our higher standards go further. We restrict all use of antibiotics which are critically important for human health and want to drive the EU regulation to come into line with our standard.
For your chance to have your say about our organic higher standards, you can take part in the Food and Farming consultation.