The European Commission has published a proposal for a Council Regulation on production and ‘EU-Organic’ labelling of organic products. The Soil Association has criticised the draft regulation, saying it will confuse consumers seeking local produce.
Who: The European Commission
When: February 2006
The European Commission published a proposed Regulation on "Organic production of agricultural products and indications referring thereto in agricultural products and foodstuffs".
The idea of the initiative is to define and bring together objectives, principles and basic labelling, control, import and production rules for organic foods in a simpler, clearer and more transparent regulation.
The objectives include the protection of consumers' interests, ensuring consumer confidence and avoiding misleading labelling.
"EU Organic" proposal
Key to the proposal is a suggested new "EU Organic" caption.
Although use of the caption will not be compulsory, those who use the term "organic" in their labelling will be required to also include on the label, in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be easily visible, clearly legible and indelible, either the "EU Organic" caption or an alternative Community organic logo that the draft regulation empowers the Commission to "define" for use "in labelling, presentation and advertising."
GM content in organic foods to be allowed?
It will continue to be the case that only those products which contain at least 95% by weight organic ingredients of agricultural origin will qualify to be described as "organic" at all.
As regards genetically modified organism ("GMO") content, the picture is cloudier. The Soil Association has suggested that by allowing organic foods to contain up to 0.9% "adventitious GMO contamination" the draft measure "flies in the face of the widespread public opposition across all EU member states to this controversial technology."
However a close look at the draft Regulation reveals that it contains no reference whatsoever to "0.9%" or "adventitious contamination." The Soil Association tell us that they have jumped to their conclusion on the basis of part of the preamble to the draft Regulation.
Para 23 of the Preamble states in its last sentence:-
"Finally, the labelling thresholds for organic and non organic produce should be identical, unless detailed rules foresee specific thresholds for example possibly for organic seeds."
Existing EU non organic labelling laws allow labels to be silent on GMO content provided the GMO content is adventitious and no more than 0.9%. Seems like the Soil Association might have a point.
Title IV of the draft Regulation deals with "labelling". In this context, "labelling" is defined as:
"any words, particulars, trademarks, brand name, pictorial matter or symbol placed on any packaging, document, notice, label, ring or collar accompanying or referring to a product [covered by the Regulation]".
Would advertising be regarded as a "notice..referring to a product"? One might have thought so, but references elsewhere in the draft to "labelling and advertising" suggest otherwise. Hardly ideal.
Article 17 of the draft Regulation stipulates that the terms "organic" and "EU organic" may be used throughout the EC and in any community language for the labelling and advertising of a product which is produced and controlled or imported in accordance with the Regulation.
The other side of the coin is that it will be contrary to the Regulation (which if it is signed off by EU Ministers will have direct effect across the EU without the need for separate implementing legislation) to use these terms if a product has not been produced and controlled or imported in accordance with the regulation.
The article goes on to state at 17.3 that these terms may not be used for a product which bears a label indicating that it contains GMOs.
Article 20 goes on to state that "general claims that a particular set of private or national organic standards is stricter, more organic or otherwise superior to the rules laid down in this draft regulation, or to any other set of organic standards, may not be used on labels or in advertising."
Why this matters:
The idea is that the new regulation should come into force in January 2009, with imports having to comply by January 2007 or include equivalent logo assurances from their own countries.
Another adjustment to the current regime is that although 95% of the product must be organic to qualify for the "EU Organic" caption or equivalent logo and once decided on, the product contain up to 0.09% genetically modified organisms to allow for accidental contamination.
The Soil Association of the UK has slammed this new initiative as running "completely counter to the spirit of the pioneers of the organic movement" whilst the labelling proposal is regarded as the imposition of "a meaningless, generic EU-organic label which will put the Commission into conflict with those who could be its strongest supporters."
"Consumers," the Soil Association goes on, "want to buy locally sourced organic sausages from Norfolk, Cumberland or Schleswig Holstein producers, not some anonymous Euro-organic sausage". The suggested obligation to carry an EU logo or use the caption "EU-organic will, the Soil Association says, "obscure local origin and undermine consumers' ability to choose local food."
Whether this proposal will achieve EU Minister sign-off remains to be seen, but the timeframe is relatively short and we will keep track of developments and ensure that marketinglaw readers are kept informed.