The Term Organic and Brexit

Over recent months, I have seen several traders describing their products as ‘organic’.  These range from cosmetics manufacturers to clothing made from organic cotton.  I have even seen face packs made from ‘organic deep sea mud’.  I suspect many of these products are misleading consumers as to the nature of their ingredients.

The term organic has a specific meaning.  It means that the ingredients of a product have been produced without the use of man-made pesticides and fertilisers.  Within Europe, there are specific EU regulations relating to the production of organic food and crops (EC889/2008 and EC834/2007).  These EU-wide regulations are made into UK law by The Organic Products Regulations 2009, as amended.

The regulations licence certification bodies and set standards defining what organic crops and food are.  For example, for a food manufacturer to apply the description organic to their food, 95% of the ingredients must come from approved organic sources.

The certification bodies regularly inspect organic farms and food producers to ensure that the rules of organic production are being met.  They take soil samples and samples of food and crops which are tested for levels of non-organic chemicals.  In the UK, 90% of certifications are carried out by two approved certification bodies, The Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers.  In total, there are nine certification bodies covering the UK and Ireland.

There are no regulations which specifically cover the use of the term organic when it is applied to non-food products.  I suspect this is partly the reason why so many sellers of items like cosmetics want to use it to describe their products.

Organic products are often sold at a price premium which reflects the increased cost of production due to wastage and the limited number of certified raw material suppliers.  There is also a psychological pricing element as consumers expect organic products to be more expensive.  Consumers place certain attributes onto organic products which, in their view makes paying extra for organic worth it.  Organic products are seen as tastier and healthier than their non-organic counterparts.  Cosmetics and non-food manufacturers want a piece of this action.  If they describe their products as organic, they can use these consumer perceptions to increase margins and to differentiate their products from competitors.  For some, less reputable traders, this may mean applying the description to products which do not meet the values of the organic food movement.

However, producers applying the description ‘organic’ to non-food products should beware.  The Consumer Protection Regulations (2007) make it a criminal offence to make false or misleading statements about goods.  So if you are applying the term Organic to goods and you are not complying with standards equivalent to organic food production, you could be prosecuted for offences under the CPRs.

The Soil Association runs a voluntary registration scheme for non-food producers who want to label their products as organic.

As stated earlier, the current system for organic products regulation originates in EU law.  DEFRA administers the licensing of certification bodies and sends their details to the EU.  Manufacturers of organic food can then use the EU-wide green leaf symbol on their packaging.  This is a stylised leaf containing the stars from the EU flag.  Food also has to be labelled with the registration number of the certification body which has assured that ingredients meet organic standards.

This week Theresa May will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.  This formerly begins the negotiations for the UK to exit the EU.  The Organic Products Regulations are one example of the complexity of the process ahead.

The organic products certification scheme is EU law.  The Green Leaf symbol is owned by the EU.  The UK list of certification bodies includes those based in the Republic of Ireland.  The link to Eire reflects the amount of Irish agricultural produce in the UK market and reflects agreements made when Ireland was partitioned. Some Irish farms have land situated on either side of the border.

So what happens post-Brexit.  Do Irish organic producers still have UK certification?  Will UK organic producers be allowed to use the green leaf symbol or will they need a new mark? Will UK organic producers who export into Europe have to be certified twice, once for the UK and once for the EU?  Will future UK organic regulations differ from those in the EU?

Brexit is going to be highly complex and it will take years to sort out all the detailed regulatory changes needed.  The government’s proposal of a ‘Great Repeal Bill’, will only paper over the cracks.  Many of the complex changes required were not discussed at the referendum and their impact may be far harsher than some politicians expect.  Issues such as the future of organic certification may create non-tariff barriers for UK firms and weaken market protections allowing foreign competitors a foothold in the UK market.  The Australian, New Zealand and US governments are already pushing for trade agreements which lower food standards in the UK and which allow the UK market to be flooded with cheap agricultural produce.  Andrea Leadsom has already expressed a wish to exclude food standards from the Brexit process.  Influencial voices have already raised concerns that lowering UK food standards will harm UK producers and open the market to fraud.