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How Can I Know Which One is Really Organic?

Heaps of “health products” appear in the market in responsible to importance attached to health diet. Among them, organic products undoubtedly have the best reputation. However, consumers might be doubtful of the “status” of so-called organic products in many occasions – do I really buy valued goods as claimed when paying higher prices?

Although health conscious consumers are willing to pay more for organic products, they might be quite frequently encountered the difficulty of distinguishing real or fake organic products. As a result, they would either try their luck or choose to avoid buying. Are these products really organic, or wrongly claimed as organic either deliberately or due to ignorance of sellers?

An organic market full of doubt

Organic products in the current market can be classified into a few categories:

(1) Organic products certified by a third party

Mainly found in imported goods, which include processed food and beverages. These are often packed in places of origin and labeled with “certified organic”, “certified by xxx”, attached with logos of certifiers. Some of them may even have a “IFOAM Accredited” or “USDA” ( United States, Department of Agriculture) seal. A third party refers to an agent that is independent of producers and consumers. In other words, products certified by a third party can be treated as a guarantee for consumers.

Some processed food or personal care products use organic materials as part of their ingredients and that certification of certain materials may not be listed in the ingredient description. Processed products may also be marked as “organic product”, “made with organic ingredient” or other wordings according to the percentage of organic materials used. These wordings are regulated differently by different certifiers.

Apart from that, consumers should pay attention to whether certifiers are certifying organic products. As there are various types of certification and accreditation systems, some products are certified for vegetarian consumption, non-GM or containing certain ingredients and these should not be mixed up with organic certification. Common organic certifiers found in Hong Kong are listed in Appendices. While in doubt, consumers could ask suppliers or search on websites. Most organic certifiers have set up their websites to provide relevant information.

 

Organic Labels of the US
Labelling options under the US National Organic Standards:

  • 100% organic: Products that have exclusively produced using organic methods.
  • Organic: Processed products that have at least 95 % of the ingredients organically produced (by weight, excluding water and salt)
  • Made with organic: Products with 70-95% organic ingredients on the front panels
  • Products with less than 70 % organic ingredients can list the organic items only in the ingredient panels.

(2) Self-claimed organic products

Products which do not have third party certification are put under this category. These include all presently locally produced organic vegetables; some un-packed vegetables imported from China or overseas; some imported certified organic products which have been unpacked in Hong Kong and sold in small packs; or sometimes some imported pre-packed organic products.

All these products are claimed to be organic on its packages, price labels or other labels, which may be provided by producers, importers, wholesalers, retailers (e.g. supermarkets) or other organizations. Apart from that, their organic status is not certified by any third party.

Local organic vegetables distributed through the Vegetable Marketing Organization (VMO) are produced by local farms which take part in the Organic Conversion Scheme under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). VMO sells the produce under a special logo and they have their own monitoring system, but it cannot be considered as an independent third party. It is because that the director of the VMO is also the director of AFCD and the staff of the two bodies has provided assistance to farmers. In other words, organic vegetables sold through VMO should be classified as self-claimed only.

The organic status or organic integrity of self-claimed products might not necessarily be worse than those certified one. The point is that we know little about that. These products might be unable to obtain certification just because there is no local certification system (e.g. Hong Kong); or because it is not worthwhile for small producers to spend on the relatively high costs of certification. If consumers want to have better understanding of the quality of these products, the best ways is to ask their suppliers and producers, or visit local farms to understand their operation, operators’ production ideology and the background of organization etc.

(3) Products with wordings related to the organic concept

The products have not been clearly claimed as organic, but note that certain materials are or are not used during production processes, for example no chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticide or insecticide, use of organic fertilizers or compost etc.

However, organic products are not just produced by using or without using certain materials, but should be in compliance with a set of operational standards. The claim does not provide sufficient information if the product is really organic or not. Since only the producers know the actual production processes of their products, the only way to know is to ask the producers.

Some wordings shown to the consumers may also be easily mixed up with “organic” e.g. natural, wild, environmentally-friendly, green, pollution free, health …. Parts of these have their special meaning while some are just publicity gimmicks.

Pollution-free :

Certification for pollution free vegetables in China refers to those grown with a reasonable amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and has residues under certain limit. These products provide better guarantee than those without any certification, but cannot be defined as organic. Please note that some products might be claimed as pollution-free but have no certification at all.

Green Food :

Certification issued by the Green Food Development Centre under the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture. “A Grade Green Food” allows the use of limited and specified agrochemicals at safe levels (obviously, it is not organic) while “AA Grade Green Food” is very close to organic ones. The label of “A” grade food has a green background with white words and patterns, the 10-digit certification code ends with “ 1”. “AA” grade food label has a white background with green words and pattern, the last digit of the food code is “ 2”.

Wild :

“Wild” is included in the concept of organic. Those tallied with organic standards can be labeled as organic after being certified. However, a product having only a “wild” claim is not necessary equivalent to organic. Consumers should ask suppliers or producers for details.

Natural, environmentally - friendly, zero pollution and healthy :

There are no clear and consistent definitions for the terms. They could be totally not related to organic, the only way to know their real status is to ask suppliers or producers directly.

(4) Other suspected cases

。 Apples of “Organic” brand,

。 Order form of “organic tea” explains the concept of organic, but the package of the product does not mention organic at all,

。 Price label says the oranges are organic ones, but the products themselves are attached with normal brand name stickers,

。 Cucumbers with “organic” price label put together with non-organic ones in supermarkets. There is no price difference between them.

We have no intention of assessing the quality or organic integrity of the above products, the fact is that we know nothing about them. Before the implementation of a broadly used organic certification system, the only thing we could do is to “ask more” about the information of products. We also want to take this opportunity to clarify that the Produce Green Foundation, so far and to the foreseeable future, has not set up any stall outside our farm to sell organic vegetables, has not produced soy milk nor pizza, has not set up a branch farm outside Fanling.

The Consequences of Confusion

Consumers who bought non-organic products by organic prices have undoubtedly waste their money, the situation is also unfair for real organic producers and suppliers. It is even more worthwhile to note that it might pose threat to our health if we treat non-organic food as organic ones. Just imagine, what would happen if we wash and consume “organic” vegetables which contain chemical residues and need thorough soaking and cleaning? Besides, with the presence of organic products without clear identifiable status, it is difficult for consumers to put fully confidence in them.

Consumers’ Choice

An organic certification system is still being prepared by the Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre and is expected to put in place in 2005. Does it mean that we are in helpless situation apart from buying those organic products certified by international bodies?

In fact, what we could do at this stage is to enhance our understanding of organic products in the market – through visiting local farms to learn about their operation and asking suppliers about their goods could, to a certain extent, exert consumer pressure on the market, which would make it difficult for non-organic products to cause confusion in the real organic market.


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