What does it mean to be “certified organic”

Author: Georgi Georgiev, Control and Certiifcation Manager at harmonica

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Regal magazine

Up until 100 years ago, the foods we now call “organically certified”, which many consumers see as something special and indeed a luxury, were the only foods the whole of humanity lived on.

With industrialisation, however, came the use of of chemical fertilisers to speed up plant growth, synthetic insecticides to limit disease and pests, herbicides to eliminate weeds, hormone to promote growth in animals and antibiotics to prevent infections.  All of which is  today known as “conventional” agriculture as opposed to the organic one.

Organic farming uses organic fertilisers to enrich the soil, pesticides derived from natural sources or traps to attract harmful insects, it relies on mechanical weeding. Organic foods also completely exclude and genetically modified organisms (GMO). So there is really nothing really special about them, they have just been grown the natural way.

What does the law say

Regulation (ЕC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products is the document that sets out what is required for a product to be labelled organic. On the country level organic agriculture is governed by  the Law for the implementation of the common organisation of agricultural markets in the EU and Ordinance No 1/07.02.2013 for the implementation of regulations on the organic production, labelling and control of plants, animals and aquaculture products, plant, animal and aquaculture products (published in the State Gazette, issue 16/2013).

Who monitors organic production, processing, labelling and trade, making sure it’s done according to the rules?

Control is carried out by organisations known as certification bodies. Those are local or foreign commercial entities, licensed by the the Ministry of Agriculture to perform their monitoring activities.

There are currently 16 organisations operating on such a license in Bulgaria: Balkan Biocert, Q Certification, Ceres, Lacon, Kiwa BCS Eco-garantie, Control Union Certifications, Bio Hellas, Ecogruppo Italia, Bioagricert Italia Bulgaria, SGS Bulgaria, Bulgarkontrola, Austria Bio Garantie, Агенция за биологична сертификация, Cosmocert, Makom Certification, and Agro Organic Control.

Each of these control bodies has its own code number, which must appear on the label of every certified organic product. Control over organic production, processing, labelling and trade is based on a contract between the operator (farmer, processor or trader) and the relevant control body.

What are the steps a new operator must take to access the certification system?

The first thing for a new operator to do is get in touch with their chosen control body and enquire about organic certification. They will then be sent a documents pack, which they should read carefully, fill out the forms and send them to the control organisation. The organisation will then verify the documents and offer the operator a contract and price quote. Next the operator needs to make the payment for the initial inspection. A date will then be set for the inspection and an inspector will be appointed by the certification body. If the inspection concludes that the producer’s farm or production unit meets the requirements of organic production, they are then put on the list as controlled operators. However, that does not mean their agricultural produce can immediately marketed as organic. Unlike processed goods, which can be produced straight after obtaining a certiciate, for agicultural production a transitional period is required. In that two or three year period you would need to adhere to all the rules of organic farming but would still not be entitled to label your produce as organic.

Subsequent monitoring

Each farm or manufacturing unit included in the control network is subject to a minimum of one full on-the-spot inspection per year. The number of inspections is determined on the basis of a risk assessment by the inspector in charge. On-the-spot checks will take place around so-called critical periods, i.e. times when deviation from legal requirements would be most likely. The Inspector goes through data records, logs and clearance papers, check performance against legal requirements, visit all production sites and storage facilities, monitoring all stages of the work. The inspector then prepares a report that will be signed by both the control body and the operator.

Inspectors can also collect samples and test them for banned substances (in case of doubt or as part of the routine annual control plan). The final report is examined and signed by the operator of the facilities. It is then assessed by the control body and if necessary, additional recommendations are given to ensure all legal requirements regulating organic production are strictly observed.

Greater safety

Apart from all the well-known benefits of organic production to both people and the environment, it also comes with much stricter quality control and higher food safety standards. At the smallest shade of doubt as to the origins of a given raw material or products they are immediately withdrawn from the market and destroyed or sold as conventional. The various entities in the control chain communicate with one another extremely effectively and reliably to promote the consumer’s trust in organic products.

Register

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food maintains a database with information about all farms, processing facilities and traders holding valid organic certificates.  The register can be found on the Ministry’s website, at www.bioregister.mzh.government.bg. It contains comprehensive information about the legal framework, control bodies and certified organic production operators. That is also one of the most reliable way for consumers to check if a given product on the market is authentically organic. Operators who have not entered their data on the register are subject to substantial penalties, which makes it a reliable source of up-to-date information.

Organic labelling

Regulation (ЕC) No 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products provide detailed rules for organic products’ labelling. Those rules are to be followed strictly by all operators included in the control network. In 2013, the so-called green leaf logo was introduced to mark all organically certified products and foods. It must also contain the code for the product’s country of production, the certification body’s code, as well as the origin of the agricultural product or its ingredients – does it come from inside or outside the EU or contain ingredients from both inside and outside, which is often the case with multiple-component products.

Biological, ecological, organic or something else?

The terms biological (or bio), ecological (or eco) and organic all carry the same meaning. Each member state has the right to choose which of the three to use for products subject to the EU regulations. For examples the term biologocal is used in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, etc., ecplogical is used in Hungary, Spain, Finland, Sweden, etc., and organic in Ireland and the UK. Therefore the Bulgarian Law for the implementation of the common organisation of agricultural markets in the EU initially contained a clause saying that any product being marketed as bio, eco or organic was required to be certified organic. Industry organisations pf organic producers and traders were monitoring the market and reporting to the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency, making sure any violations would be penalised. However, in 2013 that text was removed from the Bulgarian law for unknown reasons, leaving industry organisations and control bodies unable to take action if anyone decided to label their product eco or organic, without being certified and without facing any consequences for misleading the consumers. Therefore, currently the most reliable way to recognise a authentic organic product is the green leaf logo and the codes underneath it, which can be verified. Other misleading descriptions that are becoming increasingly wide-spread are the epithets ‘homemade’ and ‘natural’. If a product is really ‘homemade’, that means it was produced at home and you are allowed to enjoy it in the family or with friends but not sell it for profit. Whereas ‘natural’ is nothing but the opposite of ‘synthetic’ and conveys  very little meaningful information to the consumer.

The cost of certification

„Everything I grow is organic but it’s not certified because that’s very expensive“, is a statement you will hear very often from farmers. Do not believe it. Organic products do not cost more because of the money that goes for certification, which in most is less per year than the average Bulgarian monthly salary. The real reason for the higher prices is the lower yields that come with organic production methods.

 

All illustrations are from the European Commission website’s image bank and are available for public use.

Organic products do not cost more because of the money that goes for certification, which in most cases is less per year than the average Bulgarian monthly salary. The real reason for the higher prices is the lower yields that come with organic production methods.
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