Have you ever wondered if that product that claims to be organic really is organic?
What do you look for when choosing an organic product? How failsafe is the certification? And what processes do the organic producers have to go through to gain and maintain their organic status?
I put all these questions to Michael Baker, chief certification officer at Australian Certified Organic (a subsidiary of Australian Organic) to get the lowdown on exactly what is involved in being certified as organic.
What is organic certification and how does it work?
ACO is the largest organic certifying body in Australia, certifying over 2000 organic operators, including producers, processors, input manufacturers, exporters. This covers a wide range of operators within the organic industry.
There are also a number of other certifiers of organic products, such as NASAA, OFC and OFA.
Q. Can you tell us why there are multiple certification bodies in Australia?
In Australia there are seven DAF (Dept of Agriculture) accredited certification bodies. Because DAF does not have the resources to certify organic operators, they subcontract this process out to the certification bodies. There is no exclusive agreement between DAF and a certifier, and this is why there are several organic certifiers in Australia.
Q. Who controls the certification bodies?
DAF controls the certification bodies, regulating the export of Australian organic products.
However, you may not be aware that in Australia the word ‘organic’ is not regulated.
There are voluntary standards domestically which assist in identifying the mis-labelling of products, which is conducted via the ACCC, but essentially it is an open market, domestically.
So there’s a difference between a product which calls itself organic, but is not independently verified, and a certified organic product which meets the organic certification standard.
Q. How failsafe is the organic certification process? For example, statistics show that 83% of organic consumers are looking for chemical free and additive free food, some 62% are looking for non-GMO foods when they choose organic. So how can consumers be sure that products really are organic?
The organic process that operators go through is quite rigourous. They submit applications to ACO which are then reviewed to ensure they meet the requirements in order to comply with the standard. They are then inspected annually. In addition, ACO conducts testing and unannounced inspections to ensure they continue to meet the requirements of the standard.
A number of products may claim to be organic – for example, the name may have the word, or a portion of the word ‘organic’ in it, giving the impression that it is organic. So what should consumers be doing when they are thinking to buy these products that may make these kinds of claims?
So there is a major difference between a product claiming to be organic and one that is certified organic. The wording ‘certified organic’ is regulated and does need to meet the requirements for certification. A product that simply makes the claim ‘organic’ may not meet this requirement. So a consumer should always look for a recognised certification logo such as the ACO ‘bud’ logo.
Q. In addition to the certification logo, should the consumer also be looking for the certification or registration number of the producer?
The certification number is very important because it shows traceability. The consumer can go to the ACO website (www.ACO.net.au) where they can search for certification numbers and it will come up with the name of the producer of the product.
If you suspect a product, claiming to be certified organic is not actually organic, you can contact one of the certifying bodies like ACO.
Q. Can you give us a brief overview of the audit process?
The audit process, which takes place annually for all ACO certified organic operators, is a snapshot of how their organic operation is run and how they’re meeting the requirements of being certified organic. It covers a number of different aspects of the operation.
A lot of it looks at record keeping. However, it also varies quite a lot depending on the type of operation, from producer to exporter.
Say an farmer wants to become certified, aside from the record keeping processes, what are some of the ‘on the ground’ things that you look at as part of the certification process?
All ACO organic farmers have had soil tests conducted on any potentially contaminated sites, which the inspector would verify. Some of these tests relate to heavy metals, and also pesticide/herbicide residue in the soils.
The inspector will also go around the farm to consider the activities of neighbouring non-organic farms who would have higher inputs (of chemicals). For example there may need to be wider buffer zones in place to manage the potential of the spray drift from neighbouring farms.
The inspector also verifies whether the farmer uses inputs such as fertilisers, or pest and disease controllers. These also need to meet the requirements for organic inputs.
Q. So there are certain pest control methods that are allowed in an organic farming situation?
Yes. First and foremost they need to show how they are trying to prevent the cause of any pest or disease problems. There is a measure in place where, if some of those inputs aren’t working, they are allowed to use a restricted number of inputs to help control some of those pests or diseases.
Q. Can you tell me what happens for the processors and manufacturer when it comes to their audit?
Certain parts of the process is similar to the producer (farmer), where they go through record keeping audits to show that whatever raw materials they are buying they are also processing the same amount, to ensure that anything they are selling as organic is actually made with organic materials.
The inspector will also conduct a tour of the facility to ensure that any cleaning materials or pest controls they have in place are compliant under the organic standard.
Q. At a wholesale level, where a distributor repacks organic materials they purchase, into their own brand label, how do you ensure those contents are organic?
Similar to the audit for a processor or manufacturer, the inspector will look at, say, one product that has been sold and trace the content in the product all the way back to their receiving the raw materials for that product.
As part of their ‘Approved Supplier’ program they need to verify that any ingredients they are processing meet the requirements of the organic standard. And that Approved Supplier program is inspected and reviewed as part of the audit.
Q. What happens with imported products where Australian Quarantine requires that those products need to be fumigated as part of the regulations for importing them. In the case of some dried fruits, pulses, legumes and nuts from certain countries, with particular pests, these products would need to be fumigated.
Let’s take for example dried apricots from Turkey which would need to be fumigated on entry into Australia: does that mean those dried apricots could never be sold as organic in Australia?
Yes, that’s correct. Methyl Bromide is a very common treatment fumigation method for Australian Quarantine and it’s not an allowable input under organic standards, so that organic product would loose it’s organic status and could not be sold as certified organic.
Q. So is there an alternative form of fumigation, that would mean it’s possible for the product to still be organic?
My understanding of the Australian Quarantine procedures is that, normally, they will notify the receiver that they do need to fumigate. Methyl Bromide is the most common method used as Quarantine do view that as the most effective.
An alternative to Methyl Bromide is Carbon Dioxide and a number of organic operators use this as a method for controlling pests.
Q. Kialla uses CO2 as a method for controlling pests in grains. So that is an effective fumigation process?
Yes, that’s one of the alternatives available compared to the use of Methyl Bromide.
Q. At the retail level, how does the audit process work when you have certified organic retailers?
The retailer’s certification program is also conducted through inspections. Again, the inspector will be looking at their Approved Supplier program to ensure that they are purchasing products from an approved organic source.
The other side of it is verifying that products labelled as ‘organic’ in the store are certified organic.
Q. Let’s look at the example of the bulk bins that you find in a lot of organic shops, where you can by rice, lentils, nuts etc in bulk. What are the requirements in order for them to be labelled organic?
Unfortunately, at the moment there is only a small number of certified organic retailers. We are trying to increase the number of organic retailers.
So if you are purchasing product form a certified organic retailer, you can be assured that the products they are selling are organic. As part of their certification process, we verify that what produce they are claiming to be organic, and are selling in the store as organic, really is organically certified.
Q. So part of their inspection process is that you’d check that what they are selling is organic?
Yes, because the retailer is covered under a certification system.
Q. What about fruit and vegetables. In larger retailers the organic products are usually sealed to prevent any ‘cross-contamination’ with conventional fruit and vegetables. In a dedicated organic shop where the fruit and vegetables are out on display, what should the consumer be looking for to ensure that the products really are organic?
In terms of certified organic retailers, a lot of them will have separate areas so they can differentiate between their pesticide and chemical free produce and their certified organic produce. If it is all together they need clear segregation methods in place to ensure that they can’t mix.
Q. When it comes to the audits, you mentioned that they happen annually. Do people know when their audit is going to happen? Do they get advance warning that it’s coming up?
Yes, every operator will be audited annually, some will be audited several times a year. The reason for that is they do have their annual inspection where they will have notice, but we also conduct unannounced inspections.
Unannounced inspections may be based on an investigation that we’re conducting from information provided to us. Otherwise they’ll be randomly chosen.
Q. So a surprise audit could happen where someone has suspicion about how the operator is behaving, and that would be a reason for you to conduct an audit?
Legally we only have the right to conduct audits on our own operators.
Essentially, as part of that process, they may have a very short amount of notification that we’re coming. Otherwise, if it is a serious allegation, we will be showing up on the day with no notice.
Q. If someone comes up non-compliant, what happens? Are they immediately de-certified, or do you give them a chance to ‘make good’?
Obviously, depending on the severity of the non-compliance, and if it relates to the integrity of the organic products, it would be taken very seriously and they may be suspended on the spot.
But in terms of non-compliance this ranges from major to minor, so depending what it is, operators will be given a chance to take corrective action to rectify it.
Q. So in a situation where an operator comes up non-compliant, and is de-certified, is this publicised in any way so the public can know that they no longer have the certification that they may be claiming to have?
Yes, in our procedures we actually notify industry regarding any suspensions or de-certifications.
And all that information is also put up on our website. (www.aco.net.au ).
Q. I’d like to thank you Michael for your time, and for answering all those questions so thoroughly for us, filling in all those gaps.
It’s been my pleasure. Thanks very much for having me.