The Food Standards Agency recognises the role that organic food plays in providing choice for consumers.
- Is the Agency for or against organic food?
- What is organic farming and food?
- How is organic food production regulated?
- Who controls the standards for organic food production?
- How should organic food be labelled?
- Is organic food safer than other food?
- How are pesticide residues and additives controlled in food?
- Is organic food and milk more nutritious?
- Isn't there evidence that organic food is safer and more nutritious?
There are many different reasons why consumers choose to buy organic food. These can include, for example, concern for the environment and animal welfare. Eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives.
Consumers may also choose to buy organic food because they believe that it is safer and more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.
Further information on the environmental benefits of organic farming can be found on the Defra website
The Agency is neither for nor against organic food. Our interest is in providing accurate information to support consumer choice.
Organic farming is a holistic approach to food production, making use of crop rotation, environmental management and good animal husbandry to control pests and diseases. Processed organic foods use ingredients that were produced organically and organic ingredients must make up at least 95% of the food. There are only a limited number of additives used in organic food production.
Some key aspects of organic farming and food are:
- restricted use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides
- emphasis on animal welfare, and prevention of ill health, including stocking densities, free range, choice of suitable breeds
- use of conventional veterinary medicines is focussed on treating sick animals
- emphasis on soil health and maintaining this through application of manure, compost and crop rotation
- processors of organic foods have a restricted set of additives to use
- no use of GMOs or their products allowed
All food sold as 'organic' must be produced according to European laws on organic production.
These laws require food sold as 'organic' to come from growers, processors and importers who are registered and approved by organic certification bodies, which are in turn registered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or a similar control body elsewhere in the European Union.
Organic certification bodies must appoint inspectors who are, for example, expected to visit farms and check that no fertilisers or pesticides have been used that are not approved for organic production, and that land has been farmed organically for the conversion period (normally two years) before food is sold as 'organic'.
Defra is responsible for regulations governing the production of organic foods and the administration of organic schemes in the UK. See the Defra website.
All organic food must meet a common set of minimum standards that are set out in European law (see the Defra website. However, this does not prevent organic food being produced to higher standards. Some organic certification bodies produce their own standards, which are over and above the required minimum, and inspect organic producers against these.
Labels on food sold as 'organic' must indicate the organic certification body that the processor or packer is registered with. The labels must, at the minimum, include a code number that denotes the approved certification body. The name or trademark (logo) of the certification body may also, but does not have to be, shown on the label.
It is not always possible to make products entirely from organic ingredients, since not all ingredients are available in organic form. Manufacturers of organic food are permitted to use specific non-organic ingredients provided that organic ingredients make up at least 95% of the food.
If the product contains between 70% and 95% organic ingredients, organic ingredients can be mentioned only in the ingredients list, and a clear statement must be given on the front of the label showing the total percentage of the ingredients that are organic.
Both organic and conventional food have to meet the same legal food safety requirements.
Before pesticides are approved they are rigorously assessed to ensure they do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, and that any pesticide residues left in food will not be harmful to consumers. Pesticide residues in the food chain are also monitored to check they are within legal and safe limits. Additives are also subject to rigorous, pre-market safety assessments before they can be used in foods. Their use is controlled by legal limits, which ensures consumption does not exceed safe levels.
Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view.
Nutrient levels in food vary depending on many different factors. These include freshness, storage conditions, crop variety, soil conditions, weather conditions and how animals are fed. All crops and animals therefore vary in nutrient level to some extent. The available evidence shows that the nutrient levels and the degree of variation are similar in food produced by both organic and conventional agriculture. All processed food, including organic, has a nutrient content that is dependent on the nutrient content of ingoing ingredients, recipe and cooking methods. The impact of processing on nutrient levels will be the same for products made from organically and conventionally produced ingredients.
What about organic milk?
While the nutrient profile of organic milk appears to be different from non-organic milk, care must be taken when drawing conclusions as to the nutritional significance of this. Dairy sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are not a viable alternative to eating oily fish. Milk contains the shorter chain form of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid), while the forms present in oily fish are the long chain fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA)).
Research has shown that the short chain form found in plant and dairy sources does not appear to be as beneficial as those found in oily fish, which have been shown to be protective for cardiovascular disease, and may also have beneficial effects on foetal development. Although the shorter form can be metabolised to the longer forms, in humans the conversion appears limited.
It is true that some scientific papers reach this conclusion. However, others find no difference. As in any field of science, to reach a robust conclusion it is necessary to evaluate the weight of evidence across a range of published papers. Care should be taken over reliance on single papers.
The Agency maintains a close watch on scientific papers that evaluate organic food and will continue to assess new research as it is published.