Organic Food Fraud: What is it and how to identify it?

Organic food fraud? Is it truly organic?

Are you being organically conned?

I’d like to quickly ask you a question. ‘How often, if ever, do you check for organic labels on your food and, if you do, do you trust them?’. Every now and then? Always? Yes? No? Well, you may want to check again… organic food fraud is rampant.

But first, let me explain why organic farming is important today.

In order to satisfy global demand, the world’s food production must increase by 70% before 2050. That’s the equivalent of needing an extra 1 billion tonnes of cereals and about 200 million tons of various meats. Yikes. 

Sadly, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment states that over 15 of 24 ecosystem services are used unsustainably. What’s to blame? Well, the intensification of agriculture hasn’t helped. This is where farmers deforest land in order to over-graze livestock and/or continually grow crop monocultures. To do so, farmers have to over-till their soil, damaging the soil’s natural structure, killing crucial bacteria and fungi that sequester carbon and hold the soil together. In the words of Woody Harrelson from the documentary Kiss the Ground, we must work to save our soil with the hope that the soil might just save us. No arable landscape should be compared to the Moon, but sadly with the way we’re intensively farming, this is the inevitable direction we are heading.  

intensive farming threatens ecological survival

In Australia, farming now accounts for over 58% – or 390 million hectares – of landscape. With nature buckling under the immense pressure of intensive farming, it is unsurprising that the federal government listed ten ecological communities to now be endangered by such practices. Thankfully, 11 million hectares of this land is farmed organically today. To summarise the work of a researcher from the Australian National University, in order to protect and regenerate Australian landscapes, the native species and ecological function of the ecosystem must be recognised and respected. Farmers must also realise that they can be profitable and farm extensively, while maintaining the ecological health of their land. 

20 years ago, a third-generation farmer on the New South Wales (NSW) north coast was laughed at and often referred to as a hippy for going into organic farming. Today, this farmer is considered a pioneer in the NSW organic industry. Why? Compost. Instead of buying in tonnes of fertilizer, it was decided that waste soy and wheat would be turned into compost and used to improve soil biology. With no help available 20 years ago, this particular farmer had to produce his own fertiliser, which in turn created SOFT, Sustainable Organic Farming Techniques where nothing is wasted or polluted. When asked what his biggest lesson learnt over the years, the farmer responded, ‘if you look after the soil, it will look after you’. I feel a pattern emerging here…

Organic food fraud: Are consumers fussed?

In 2019, The Australian Organic Market Report revealed that 65 % of consumers purchase ‘some’ organic products every year. An increased awareness of chemical use within intensive systems and caring about the environment were recorded to be the main drivers of purchasing organic products. 

A spokesperson, from Natural Products Global, has however stated the increase in non-certified organic products on the market. This has subsequently led to thirty percent more consumers now checking the label and having less trust in food suppliers. But should consumers be more worried?

From an article, ‘What you probably don’t realise about “organic” products’ one particular consumer was noted to have lost trust in organic labelling after spending $7,000 on a market grower to find out the owner purchased limp fruit and vegetables from Flemington Market in Sydney and passed it off as organic. This case, as well as thousands of others, highlights the greenwashing cases and blurred lines in the legal framework.  

Even though the Australian Consumer Law business states that businesses must not mislead, deceive or make false claims, Australian Certified Organic has received hundreds of organic food fraud cases. Perhaps regulating the term ‘organic’ on products sold within the country could be the first step but the government is fearful of it delving too deep into the regulation of other Australian agricultural standards.

 Instead, the organic food industry is advised to self-regulate to Australian customers meanwhile organic products for export are fully regulated in Australian export law. 

Organic food fraud - can you trust the labels?

So, how can you avoid organic food fraud?

  1. Closely read labels. Companies have been found to jumble words around so they sound certified, but are not. Again, Australians are advised to look for the Bud logo which is reviewed by the Australian Certified Organic Standard (ACO).
  1. Read the ingredients list. Often something that is claiming to be organic will include unnatural products that many consumers don’t recognise. Everything in the ingredients list should be recognisable in nature and edible. 
  1. If you find something to be fraudulent, contact the ACO and they will assess the establishment and send them a NASSA Fraudulent Certificate alert, preventing companies from lying to consumers.
  1. Take time to re-connect to the food you eat. Take time to research and spend a little more money buying from a local farm shop or farmers market. Ask them how they farm, take an interest. 

Whether you believe in the headlines stating that we have 60 years of harvests left or not, collectively consumers need to stand their ground and fund farming that is trustworthy and good for the earth. Remember, how you treat the earth is ultimately a reflection of how you treat yourself. So, next time you’re in Woolies or Coles, take an extra few minutes to scan the label. You may be surprised.

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