TWENTY SECOND FAO REGIONAL CONFERENCE FOR EUROPE
PORTO, PORTUGAL, 24-28 JULY 2000
Agenda Item 10.1
FOOD SAFETY AND QUALITY AS AFFECTED BY ORGANIC FARMING
1. According to many reports, organic food is a growing business with good long-term prospects.i ii Despite the heightened attention that organic agriculture has attracted during the last decade, it still only accounts for a small proportion of overall agricultural land: an average of about 2% for the countries of the European Union, 0.1% for the United States of America and 1.34% for Canada. Notably, organic agriculture is also gaining importance in a number of developing countries including China, Egypt, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Uganda.
2. Organic agriculture is one among the broad spectrum of production methods that are supportive of the environment. Organic production systems are based on specific and precise standards of production which aim at achieving agro-ecosystems which are socially and ecologically sustainable. Organic agriculture is based on minimising the use of external inputs, avoiding the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.
3. "Organic" is a labelling term that denotes products that have been produced in accordance with organic standards throughout production, handling, processing and marketing stages, and certified by a duly constituted certification body or authority. The "organic" label is therefore a process claim rather than a product claim. It should not necessarily be interpreted to mean that the foods produced are healthier, safer, or "all natural." It simply means the product follows the defined standard of production and handling, although surveys indicate that consumers consider the "organic" label as an indication of purity and careful handling. "Organic" standard will not exempt producers and processors from compliance with general regulatory requirements, such as food safety regulations, pesticide registrations, general food and nutrition labelling rules, etc.
4. With growth in the organic food sector by far outstripping growth in the conventional food sectors, many studies and surveys have been carried out to investigate consumer attitudes towards organic foods and hence the reason for the observed trend.iii iv v vi These studies have revealed that consumer notions about the wholesomeness and safety of organic foods are fundamental in their choice of these foods although concern for environmental protection and animal welfare also provide primary motivation for this food choice. In the face of such consumer expectations, it is important to carefully consider the question of the quality and safety of organic foods in order to identify problems and issues that require attention. Highly publicised food safety issues such as the ongoing debate over genetically engineered foods, the incidence of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and dioxin-contaminated food cause heightened consumer concern about food safety.
5. The organic trend is only one of several that are evident in today's food market. These trends include consumers' increasing demand for convenience foods, a broader range and variety of foods on the local market, and foods that are perceived as natural or minimally processed. There is also growing interest in functional foods: foods with purported health-promoting benefits beyond their nutritive value. Finally, an issue of major relevance in the food sector is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These trends interact in different ways with the phenomenon of organic foods and organic agriculture.
6. The existence of opposing trends within the food sector has given rise to some degree of polarisation among different interest groups. This paper does not seek to make a value judgement on the "right" approach to agricultural development. Rather it presents a critical and transparent overview of issues that relate to the quality and safety of organic foods.
7. In only 13 years the certified and policy supported organic production area in the EU has grown 30-fold from approximately 100 000 ha in 1985 to more than 2.8 million ha by the end of 1998. Growth rate and total area vary widely between countries and nearly 80% of the expansion has taken place since 1993, coinciding with the implementation of EC Regulation 2092/92 (defining organic crop production) and the implementation of policies in support of conversion to and continued organic farming as part of the agri-environment programme, EC Regulation No. 2078/92.vii
8. At an overall persistent growth rate in the EU of around 25% per year for the last ten years, organic agriculture is without doubt one of the fastest growing sectors of agricultural production. At a continued annual growth rate of either 15 or 25% the organic share of total EU agriculture is expected to reach between 5 to 10% by 2005 and 10 to 30% by 2010, respectively. Based on the current value of retail sales this means a growth from approximately. EURO 5 billion in 1997 to EURO 25-30 billion in 2005 7. It should be noted, however, that in general, organically produced foods currently receive a price premium which compensates for the somewhat lower yields, but it is not known how prices would be affected by substantially increased levels of organic production.
9. The growth rates in Central and Eastern Europe were as high or higher in the 1990s, although overall land area (more than192.000 ha by 20001) and production volumes are still very small. However, processing and manufacturing capacities and standards as well as local distribution and export infrastructures are still significant barriers to development. Frequently the local market does not recognise the organic produce with a price premium and consumer awareness is, in general, apparently low 2.
10. Organic food sales in the major European markets (Denmark, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) are predominantly handled by supermarkets, except in Germany and the Netherlands, and are dominated by dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, cereals and cereal-based products. Until recently, processing of organic food was handled by specialist producers and was largely concentrated on primary processing and repackaging into forms suitable for sale to consumers. However, the secondary processing market is growing since consumers are increasingly looking for an assortment of processed foods similar to that available from conventional production. This has led to the entry of mainstream manufacturers rather than new specialist processors, which are adding organic products to their factory production lines.
11. The rapid increase of the volume and growth rate has tremendous implications on all aspects of production, processing, transport and marketing, including the necessary provisions for policy support, training, advice and research.viii
12. EU member states increasingly see organic agriculture as a tool to improve rural income diversity and stability while simultaneously increasing biodiversity and environmental sustainabilityix. These considerations are of particular importance in CEE and CIS countries which have a much higher percentage of rural population. Organic agriculture is therefore likely to become of more interest to governments in these countries than the present market share of products would indicate.
13. Food quality and safety are of concern to every individual. Consumers expect their food to be enjoyable, nutritious and safe. The responsibility for ensuring that this expectation is consistently met rests with governments, industry and the consumers themselves. The responsibility of governments is to ensure that food quality and safety requirements are appropriate; adequately supported within the frame of national food quality and safety legislation and regulations; and clearly communicated to industry and consumers. Governments must also provide and efficient food control administration, and adequate and reliable food inspection and food analysis services in order to ensure that food quality and safety requirements are met by all. The food industry must ensure the quality and safety of their products through the implementation of quality assurance programmes, including food safety programmes based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, designed to ensure compliance with all relevant regulations. Consumers must employ correct food handling practices in order to avoid creating food quality and safety problems at the level of the home. A 1999 WHOx report showed that in Europe, the home was most frequently the place where foodborne disease outbreaks occur (36%).
14. Besides safety, quality attributes include: nutritional value; organoleptic properties such as appearance, colour, texture, taste; and functional properties. Consumers, the food industry and government regulators are also concerned with these quality criteria. Quality can be considered as a complex characteristic of food that determines its value or acceptability to a consumer, and it is important to realise that consumers' evaluation of quality is often subjective. From a regulatory or consumer protection point of view, "quality" refers to the basic objective requirements which must be met under existing laws and regulations to assure that foods are safe, not contaminated, adulterated or fraudulently presented. Safety requirements for foods are neither optional nor negotiable. Furthermore, recent international agreements emphasise the need for food safety measures to be based on risk analysis following principles and procedures elaborated by relevant international organizations. International food safety standards and food hygiene requirements are equally valid for conventionally and organically produced food. The issue of other food quality characteristics is less clear-cut. There is a widely-held view that the food industry is best placed to make decisions concerning the quality of their products based on their understanding of market demands. However, mandatory and optional quality standards do exist in order to ensure that essential product requirements are met and to protect consumers against fraudulent practices
15. There are many types of safety hazards associated with foods that can arise during the production of foods or their subsequent handling, processing and packaging. Microbiological hazards include bacteria, protozoa, parasites, viruses, and fungi or their toxins. Naturally-occurring toxicants in the environment such as zinc, arsenic and cyanide or in the food itself such as solanin and histamine, may also constitute food safety hazards. Toxic industrial chemicals or radioactive wastes are other potential sources of food contamination. Examples of such industrial contaminants are: arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Contaminants may enter the food chain due to excess or improper fertiliser use; examples are cadmium, nitrates and nitrites. Misuse of authorised pesticides or veterinary drugs may also create chemical hazards in food. Contaminated animal feed or improper animal feeding practices could also lead to unsafe food.
16. On a global basis, a rating of health risks arising from foods showed that risks due to food additives and pesticide residues are relatively minor (both acute and chronic effects) as compared with microbiological and other naturally occurring toxinsxi. Epidemiological investigation of foodborne illness in Europe showed that only 0.5% of outbreaks were due to chemical substances. Despite this statistic, however, the results of a questionnaire that was sent to European countries indicated that the problem of food contamination by chemicals was perceived as an important public health concern10.
A. Regulation of Organic Foods
17. In order to regulate food, it is necessary that objective parameters are established according to which regulatory decisions can be made. Hence the need for food quality and safety standards, guidelines and recommendations. Trade in organic foods and resulting growth of this sector are impeded in the absence of harmonised regulations among potential trading partners. In 1991 the European Community adopted regulations on organic production of agricultural products (Council Regulation No. 2092.91). In 1999, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) adopted guidelines for the production, processing, labelling and marketing of organically produced foodsxii. These regulations set out the principles of organic production at farm, preparation, storage, transport, labelling and marketing stages. They do not currently cover livestock, but the CAC is in the process of developing regulations for organic livestock production. The adoption of international guidelines is an important step in providing a unified approach to regulating the organic food sub-sector and thus the facilitation of trade in organic food. A common understanding of what is meant by "organic" as well as the existence of internationally-recognised guidelines provide an important measure of consumer protection against deceptive and fraudulent practices.
18. It is important to realise first of all that organic foods must meet all quality and safety standards applied to conventionally produced foods. In this regard it should be noted that CEE countries are continuing the alignment of their national food standards and safety regulations with international requirements of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements and the EU. This has contributed to an overall improvement in the implementation of food safety measures, particularly in countries preparing for future EU accession. Specific regulations and guidelines for organically produced foods provide additional requirements arising from the fact that production methods are an intrinsic part of the identification and labelling of, and claim for, such products. In the regulation of organic foods, it is therefore necessary to establish mechanisms whereby assurance can be given that all relevant guidelines are adhered to in the production of these foods. This is achieved through a system of inspection and certification.
19. Inspection and certification is an intrinsic part of organic agricultural production. In fact, according to the EC and Codex guidelines, the use of terms inferring that organic production methods have been used are restricted to products derived from operators under the supervision of a certification body or authority and are subject to a regular inspection system meeting minimum requirements. Certification may be based, as appropriate, on a range of inspection activities covering the production and processing system and including auditing of quality assurance systems and examination of finished products.
20. It is through inspection and certification, therefore, that the consumer is assured that the essential elements constituting "organic" production are met and that foods labelled as "organic" are really what they claim to be. Growing consumer demand and expanding economic interests in organic production have led to increasing distances between producer and consumer: this highlights even further the importance of external control and certification procedures to ensure consumer protection. Governments are responsible for ensuring that organic inspection and certification systems within the country meet all relevant national requirements.
21. The FAO Committee on Agriculture has recognised that demand for organic products has created new export opportunities for the developing worldxiii. Even though some consumers express a preference for locally grown organic foods, this is counterbalanced by consumer demand for a variety of products year-round. Currently farmers and traders seeking to market their product in developed countries must avail themselves of the services of an organic certification organization, the cost of which can be prohibitive to small businesses. Addressing this constraint to organic farming in developing countries without jeopardising the quality of their produce, requires that local capacity and capability in the inspection and certification of organic production be improved. The lack of adequate food control expertise and/or infrastructure in developing countries or countries in transition presents a definite constraint to the growth of organic agriculture. It should be noted that FAO has provided and continues to provide technical assistance to CEE and CIS countries in improving their food control systems.
22. Furthermore, since the adherence to good agricultural practices in general and to organic agriculture practices in particular depends to a large degree on the knowledge and understanding of best practices, technical assistance and better training play a vital role in improving quality and safety at the producer level. The lack or reduction of such extension systems and access to professional training are a major barrier, noticeably more so in CEE and CIS countries.
23. Import requirements for organic foods should be based on the principles of equivalence, transparency and least trade restrictiveness, as set out in WTO Agreements. In accepting imports of organic products, countries would usually assess the inspection and certification procedures and the standards applied in the exporting country.
24. Export of organic products from third countries into EU-member states requires that the country of origin appears in a list drawn up by the Commission. On request, a third country can be included in this list if it demonstrates that the organic food is produced according to rules that are equivalent to the rules of organic production laid down in EC legislation and that it is subject to inspection measures that are equivalent to those stipulated for products originating in the EU. Such regulations ensure that consumers in EU countries are assured organic products of acceptable quality regardless of the country of origin.
B. Chemical Hazards
25. With respect to chemicals, organic agriculture differs from conventional agriculture as it refrains from using synthetic agricultural inputs, such as synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, fungicides, veterinary drugs (e.g. antibiotics, growth hormones), synthetic preservatives and additives, and irradiation. Thus, potential hazards posed by synthetic input residues are prevented, to the extent possible. This underlies consumer expectations that organic foods are healthier.
- Pesticide residues
26. Studies carried out to investigate the relative presence of pesticide residues on organically as opposed to conventionally grown productsxiv xv xvi xvii confirm the reduced presence of pesticide residues in organic food although organic food may not be defined as pesticide-free. Organic certification schemes specify that land must be free from chemical inputs for 2 or 3 years prior to organic production. However the possible presence of pesticide residues from previous land use means that low levels of pesticides or other contaminants can occasionally be found in certified organic food. The presence of pesticides by such means does not necessarily preclude the food being described as organic, providing all other certification requirements have been fulfilled. The presence of pesticide residues at low levels on organic produce may also be explained in terms of chemical sprays drifting from conventionally managed farms. While pesticide residues are demonstrably lower in organic products, it is important to emphasise that consumers of conventionally grown products are protected against health risks associated with these chemical residues through the adoption by governments of appropriate legislation and regulations that require farmers to adhere to good agricultural practices and establish maximum residue limits (MRLs), based on rigorous risk analysis, which do not pose significant health risks. Implementation of national food control programmes ensures adherence to the MRLs. European data on pesticide residues in total diet studies show that calculated intakes are very low, often below 1% of the Acceptable daily intake (ADI) as determined by toxicological studies. It is not known whether this conclusion is valid for CEE and CIS countries, however, as they do not have extensive data sets10.
27. It should be noted that organic producers are not prohibited from using all pesticides - certain pesticides from natural sources can be used. Natural pesticides like the chemically synthesised pesticides must be subject to safety evaluation. Natural pesticides used in organic management are usually restricted under certification schemes. International guidelines for organically produced foods include lists of substances that can be used for plant pest and disease control if the need for such is recognised by the certification body. In organic management, biological control is the preferred method of pest management.
28. Nitrate content of organically grown crops, particularly nitrophilic leaf, root and tuber crops, is reported to be significantly lower than in conventionally grown products.3, 15 The occurrence of nitrates in certain crops is favoured by the use of highly soluble mineral fertilisers. Some surveys, however, indicate that factors other than farming system are of importance in determining nitrate levels xviii. It has been reported, for example, that governments of Germany and France have encouraged conversion to organic farming in certain areas in a bid to improve water quality, particularly in relation to its nitrate content xix. The negative food safety implication of high nitrate content in foods is that under certain conditions they may be converted to nitrosamines which are carcinogens. Nitrates can also impair the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, and may pose a risk of methemoglobinemia. These risks are subject to risk management and reduction in the conventional food supply.
- Environmental contaminants
29. Besides pesticide residues, there are several other chemical hazards associated with foods. Those chemical contaminants coming from general environmental pollution are found equally in organically and conventionally grown products15. This should be expected since persistent pollutants in the soil such as chlorinated hydrocarbons and certain heavy metals cannot be avoided or eliminated through the use of organic farm management techniques. In Western Europe, effective measures to limit environmental pollution have been put in place. In Central and Eastern Europe, areas of high contamination occur due to industrial activity - whether from mining and smelting activities, the energy sector, agricultural practices or disposal of hazardous and municipal wastes10. A more widespread use of organic agriculture may contribute to a reduction of environmental degradation, which may ultimately result in reduced levels of certain contaminants in food.
30. The use of biosolids from wastewater treatment facilities (often referred to as sludge) on fields to produce food crops creates concerns about contamination of food by heavy metals, toxic organic compounds (such as dioxin, PCBs) and persistent microbial pathogens xx. The Codex and EU organic standards prohibit the use of sewage sludge. Some European countries (e.g. Denmark, Sweden) prohibit sludge application of any kind to lands for grazing. Other countries (e.g. Germany, Netherlands) regulate its use even for conventional agriculture. The revised regulations of the US National Organic Programme also ban the use of sewage sludge in organic agriculture.
- Veterinary drugs and contaminants in animal feeds
31. According to EC regulations (EC No 1804/1999), animal health management in organic systems precludes the preventative use of chemically-synthesised allopathic medicinal products. Animal health management in organic production systems should mainly be based on prevention by measures such as appropriate selection of breeds and strains, a balanced high-quality diet and a favourable environment. Public health concerns about microbial resistance to certain antibiotics as well as the high level of media coverage given to the issue of Bovine Somatotropin (BST) use, seem to have propelled consumer demand for organic dairy products which is growing at a rate of 35% annually in the United States xxi. In several countries of the EU there is high market demand for organic milk and further rapid growth in demand is projected 2. In Denmark, organic milk currently accounts for 20% of total milk production. The Government's aim is to raise the share of organic milk in the national milk market to 50% in 5 years and 100% in 10 years. All milk used in Denmark's school feeding programmes is organically produced.
32. Contaminants in animal feeds, such as pesticide residues, agricultural and industrial chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive nuclides, can give rise to safety hazards in foods of animal origin. As EC regulations (EC No 1804/1999) require that livestock, claimed to be produced organically, is fed on organically produced feed stuffs, the potential for contamination with pesticide residues and other agricultural chemicals is greatly reduced compared to conventional farming methods. However, as pointed out above, organic agriculture does not reduce levels of persistent environmental pollutants in organically grown products. These may therefore be present in organic feedstuffs and hence in organic food of animal origin.
C. Microbiological Hazards
- Contamination from natural fertilisers
33. Animal manure and other organic waste are the main fertilisers used in organic farming. These natural fertilisers are also widely used in conventional agriculture along with chemically synthesised fertilisers. Microbiological contamination arising from the use of natural fertilisers and measures needed to address it, must focus on both organic and conventional agriculture.
34. Untreated or improperly treated manure or biosolids used as fertilisers or soil nutrient agents, whether in organic or non-organic agriculture, can lead to contamination of products and/or water sources. Animal and human faecal matter are known to contain a range of human pathogens. Properly treated manure or biosolids are effective and safe fertilisers. Growers need to follow good agricultural practices for handling these natural fertilisers to minimise microbial hazards. Recent research indicates that pathogenic organisms can survive up to 60 days under compost conditions.
35. The Codex General Principles of Food Hygiene provide the basic rules for ensuring food safety for all foods. Organic production, as with all other types of food production, must follow the provisions outlined in this international code of practice. These include a requirement that producers should implement measures to control contamination from fertilisers used in primary production and to protect food sources from faecal and other contamination.
36. Much of the research on the composting of manure and application of manure to field crops has focused on the effects of different practices on soil fertility and crop quality. Further research is required on pathogen survival in untreated manure, treatments to reduce pathogen levels in manure, and assessing the risk of cross-contamination of food crops from manure under varying conditions. Recent research suggests for example that some pathogens, such as the hepatitis A virus, have a higher thermal threshold than others. In addition, the time and temperature required to eliminate or reduce microbial hazards in manure or other organic materials may vary depending on regional climate and the specific management practices of an individual operation.
37. Good hygienic and good agricultural practices are also required to protect contamination of food by untreated manure. Additional research is also needed to determine how pathogens in manure may spread in the field. However, for some operations, drift and runoff from adjacent fields may result in microbial hazards. Growers may consider scheduling application of manure on adjacent fields to maximise the time between manure application to those fields and harvest of fresh market products.
- E. Coli contamination
38. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) identifies the main source for human infection with E. coli as meat contaminated during slaughter. Virulent strains of E. coli, such as E. coli 0157:H7, develop in the digestive tract of cattle, which is mainly fed with starchy grain as research at Cornell University has demonstratedxxii. Cows mainly fed with hay generate less than 1 % of the E. coli found in the faeces of grain-fed animals. It is one of the most important goals of organic farming to keep the nutrient cycles closed. Therefore, ruminants like cattle and sheep are fed with diets with a high proportion of grass, silage and hay. It can be concluded that organic farming potentially reduces the risk of E. coli infection.
39. Mycotoxins are toxic by-products of certain moulds that can grow on certain food products under suitable conditions. Aflatoxins are the most toxic of these compounds and can induce liver cancer at very low doses if ingested over a prolonged period of time. Since fungicides are not allowed in organic production and given that mycotoxins constitute a major health hazard, their relative presence in foods produced organically or conventionally has been the subject of many studies 10 xxiii xxiv xxv xxvi. From these studies it cannot be concluded that organic farming leads to an increased risk of mycotoxin contamination. It is important to emphasise that good agricultural, handling and storage practices are required in organic as in conventional agriculture to minimise the risk of mould growth and mycotoxin contamination. Two studies reported by Woess15 found that aflatoxin M1 levels in organic milk were lower than in conventional milk. This points to shortcomings in animal feeding practices in conventionally raised livestock. Good practices in animal feeding for all producers require that ingredients used for animal feeding should be checked to ensure that adequate quality standards are maintained and that mycotoxins and other possible contaminants are not present at higher than acceptable levels. Good animal feeding practices also require that feed is stored in such a way as to avoid contamination. As organically raised livestock are fed greater proportions of hay, grass and silage, there is reduced opportunity for mycotoxin contaminated feed to lead to mycotoxin contaminated milk.
D. Nutritional, Sensory and Functional Properties
40. Many of the studies that have so far been carried out to compare the nutritional quality of organically grown foods with those produced by conventional methods have suffered from flawed experimental design. This has undermined the validity of some of the results and limits the ability to confidently draw conclusions in this regard. The large number of factors influencing product quality further increases the difficulty of a significant distinctionxxvii xxviii. In several cases, even when differences between the content of certain nutrients are statistically significant, they are only of minor nutritional importance. Further work needs to be carried out in this area to verify or clarify earlier results.
41. Many sensory analysis studies have been carried out to investigate differences in selected organoleptic parameters between organically and conventionally grown products, and on the whole these indicate that there is no clear difference between the two15 xxix. Certain studies have shown significant differences for selected products, as in the case of the sensory differences between organically and conventionally grown apples of the Golden Delicious variety. The organically grown apples were found to be firmer and received higher taste scores than conventionally grown apples. The content of flavanoids in the organic apples was higherxxx. Another study showed that organic tomatoes were sweeter and conventional carrots had more "carrot taste" xxxi.
42. Comparative studies between organically grown and conventionally grown wheat have shown that the former has lower protein content. This may have undesirable consequences on the baking quality of the wheat flour as the wheat proteins play an important role in the rheological behaviour of dough15. Another recent study has shown that there was better loaf browning in bread made from organically grown wheat due to higher alpha-amylase and sugar contents which favour the Maillard reaction xxxii.
43. Some studies have focussed on the differences in the storage life of organically grown products in comparison with conventionally grown products. Results indicate that better storage capacity of some organic products may be a quality difference resulting from production effects, e.g. less storage losses due to fungi in organic carrots and less deterioration of cooking properties in organic potatoes18.
E. Organic Food Quality and Processing
44. At the level of food processing both the CAC and the EU organic food guidelines restrict the use of food ingredients of non-agricultural origin used in the processing of organic foods. Allowed ingredients and additives are included in annexes to the two guidelines. Both international organic guidelines preclude the use of irradiation on food or any ingredient thereof. Besides these considerations, there are no differences between the processing of conventional and organic foods. Food safety concerns that have been investigated in relation to the contamination of processed foods with chemical compounds, such as bisphenol A, phthalates and heavy metals, contained in certain packaging materials or processing contact surfaces are equally relevant to organic and conventionally produced food. It may also be useful to note that current consumer trends towards "natural' and "minimally processed" food may overlap with the demand for organically grown foods. A major function of processing operations is to render a food microbiologically stable for a defined period. With minimally processed foods unacceptable levels of microbiological contamination will occur if adequate care is not exercised in their processing and handling.
- Food irradiation
45. Irradiation of food assists in the control of insects, parasites, pathogenic bacteria and various deteriorative changes that occur in some foods. When food irradiation is carried out according to internationally accepted guidelines, there is no associated food safety risk. Despite the accumulated body of scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of this processing technology (International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation -ICGFIxxxiii), it is still not fully accepted by all consumer segments. Consumers, who are reluctant to accept this technology, welcome the assurance that organic foods cannot be subjected to ionising radiation. However, in many countries labelling regulations require that conventionally produced food that has been subjected to irradiation, be labelled as such. Consumers of conventional foods are thus assured of their right to choose whether they want to purchase foods treated by irradiation.
F. Other Aspects of Organic Food Quality
46. The understanding of food quality has been expanded beyond mere definition by chemical content, technical characteristics for processing and storage, appearance and taste. Particularly in organic agriculture, but not exclusively so, other considerations like ethical values and production principles (environmental impact such as energy efficiency, non-pollution, animal welfare, aim for sustainability and social impact) are gaining weight as integral product values. In this context, organic agriculture's contribution to cleaner drinking water, e.g. in Lithuania's Karst regions, UK's environmentally sensitive areas and Germany's water protection areas, and to higher weed, insect and bird diversity or general environmental quality are positive values that are appreciated by consumers. Quality issues are receiving increasingly more attention in the public debate, particularly in the Nordic countries and Estoniaxxxiv.
47. Organic farming enhances genetic biodiversity including organisms living in the soil, wild life, wild flora and cultivated crops. Organic agriculture practices recover indigenous crop varieties and regenerate landraces with distinct quality characteristics such as the Genovese mountain potato in Italy (Quarantina bianca and Cannellina nera). Sourcing of good quality genotypes remains a major constraint.
48. The relatively recent introduction of genetically engineered seeds is another issue of interest to the organic community. International guidelines for organic foods ban the use of genetically modified organisms as genetic engineering is considered incompatible with the principles of organic production. Public concern has been widely expressed over the possible negative impact of this technology on the environment as well as on human and animal health, even though there is no clear scientific evidence of this. Choosing "organic" is a way for consumers to ensure avoidance of GMOs. Labelling of conventionally produced foods indicating the use of GMOs is gaining increasing acceptance worldwide. In this case, consumers of conventionally produced foods will also be assured their right to exercise choice over the use of GMOs.
49. Various new holistic approaches are being used to identify and investigate differences between organic and conventional produce, and these investigation methods are in general recognised in the scientific community. According to the proponents of these alternative methodologies, the so-called "life forces" are measured through: morphological analysis, sensory evaluation, electro-chemical methods, biophoton emission (i.e. light emission), and picture developing methods to demonstrate vitality of food that affects ageing of products (e.g. cupric crystallisation, circular chromatography, vital induction flux, vibratory tests, germination capacity, conservation capacity). Links between these alternative methodologies and organic food quality or the impact of organic food consumption on human health are yet to be established.
50. There is a growing demand for organic foods driven primarily by consumers' perceptions of the quality and safety of these foods and to the positive environmental impact of organic agriculture practices. This growth in demand is expected to continue in the foreseeable future. In view of consumer expectations, it is important that governments, industry and consumer groups carefully examine issues related to organic food quality and safety and make whatever interventions may be necessary to ensure an appropriate level of consumer protection.
51. The establishment of regional (EC) and international (Codex) guidelines for the production, processing, labelling and marketing of organic foods has been an important step in the international harmonisation of requirements for organic foods. Harmonisation is necessary to ensure that consumers receive what they expect, regardless of the origin of the organic food. This important work should be continued in order to: broaden the scope of organic guidelines; ensure that the international guidelines reflect the existing differences in consumer perception in different regions; and, continue to adapt the guidelines according to changes and developments in organic production systems.
52. The "organic" label is not a health claim, it is a process claim. Nevertheless, in view of the reduced use of chemically synthesised inputs in organic farming, many studies have been carried out to investigate safety and quality implications of the production system. It has been demonstrated that organically produced foods have lower levels of pesticide and veterinary drug residues and, in many cases, lower nitrate contents. Animal feeding practices followed in organic livestock production, also lead to a reduction in contamination of food products of animal origin. In addition, the "organic" label provides assurance to consumers that no food ingredient has been subject to irradiation and that GMOs have been excluded. No clear trends have been established in terms of organoleptic quality differences between organically and conventionally grown food.
53. Considering the potential environmental benefit of organic production, its suitability for the integrative role of agriculture in rural development and its aptness to current farming input and production levels in many CEE and CIS countries, organic agriculture should be considered as a development vehicle in the sub-region. The FAO Committee on Agriculture agreed in 1999 that properly managed organic farming contributes to sustainable agriculture and therefore organic agriculture has a legitimate place within sustainable agriculture programmes.
54. In the efforts of CEE and CIS countries to access the large but also very competitive western European market for organically produced food, there is a need to create an environment conducive to growth in the new organic production sector. It is clearly foreseeable that in order to maintain reliable organic certification and verification and ensure adherence to all safety standards and special regulations, both the private and public sectors have to make tremendous efforts in training, education and collaboration.
55. Due to the commitment of reduced chemical use in the organic food chain all the way to the consumer, novel methods and approaches may be required to guarantee freshness and safety given increased storage periods and longer transport chains in the marketing of organic foods. This challenge requires intensive research and appropriate support and incentives, but will eventually benefit conventional as well as organic production.
56. The Regional Conference may wish to provide guidance on how FAO might best address quality and safety issues of organic agriculture, according to the needs of its member countries. The following are areas which require the urgent attention of member countries desirous of preserving quality and safety of organic food.
Harmonised rules and food control measures
57. All countries may be expected to harmonize their rules and regulations with international guidelines governing organic agriculture. The establishment of such regulations requires broad-based involvement from all concerned, including government, industry and consumers, so as to ensure that regulations are widely supported and are practicable.
58. To ensure that evolving guidelines reflect emerging issues in organic production systems world-wide and meet the concerns of consumers in all regions, countries should participate to the fullest extent possible in international fora dealing with the elaboration of rules governing organic agriculture.
59. Inspection and certification systems for organic production need to be developed for CEE and CIS countries and should be equivalent to those required by EC regulations. It may be desirable for countries of Western Europe to consider providing assistance to CEE and CIS countries to assist them in developing the required technical capacity to assure that organic guidelines and regulations are met by organic producers in these countries.
60. Assistance in strengthening general food control capacity, particularly for the CEE and CIS countries, is necessary to ensure effective enforcement of organic food regulations.
61. Food safety initiatives should continue to focus on scientific research, identifying and supporting research priorities designed to help fill the gaps in our knowledge of food safety of organic food (fresh and processed). They should also assist in assessing risks and in developing cost-effective interventions to prevent, control, or eliminate microbial pathogens on fresh and minimally processed products.
62. There needs to be increased research on the management and use of manure fertilisers. Additional information is required on the critical times and temperatures needed to make composted manure microbiologically safe for soil treatments with particular attention to the question of survival of spore-forming bacteria, viruses and protozoa.
63. Further work needs to be carried out to investigate quality characteristics of organically produced foods. Much of the past work has been inconclusive due primarily to problems with experimental design which did not adequately take account the large number of factors influencing product quality. Future research, using alternative methodologies, needs to establish a link between the results of these experiments and objective indicators of organic food quality. There is a need to move beyond conventional parameters for evaluating food quality to consider long-term effects on human health.
64. The basic guidelines for food safety are provided by the Codex General Principles of Food Hygiene. The people involved in all aspects of production, handling, storage, processing or distribution of organic foods, must be well-trained in good hygienic, agricultural and manufacturing practices.
65. Extension services must be developed to provide the necessary support and guidance to organic producers to improve quality and safety of their products. The absence of adequate extension systems and poor access to training constitutes major barriers for the development of organic food production, particularly in CEE and CIS countries.
66. Researchers and other parties with interest in organic farming will greatly benefit from efficient collaboration and dissemination networks. A research network within European System of Cooperative Research Network in Agriculture (ESCORENA)xxxv, (supported by FAO) the purpose of which was to harmonise research methods for better comparability of production related research results, was a first step in this direction. Other research and extension/training network topics related to novel marketing developments, special organic storage and other post harvest methods can be envisioned as useful for the faster and smoother development of sustainable production systems, particularly in Europe's less favoured regions.
67. The active involvement of associations of organic food producers would facilitate communication and cooperation between industry and government. They would also contribute to the observance of organic food rules and regulations. These rules and regulations not only protect the consumer, but also protect conscientious organic producers from unfair competition by producers falsely claiming their produce as organic.
Sustainable agricultural development
68. Organic farming can help reduce ground and surface water contamination and can safeguard drinking water supplies in certain areas, thus contributing to food safety in a larger sense and sustainable agriculture.
69. Considering the potential environmental benefit of organic production and its compatibility with integrated agricultural approaches to rural development, organic agriculture may be considered, as appropriate, as a development vehicle in some countries of the region. It must be noted that highly variable farm structures, environmental conditions and infrastructure require local feasibility evaluation to determine the attractiveness of the organic model.
i IFOAM, 2000. Statistics Central and Eastern Europe; http://www.ifoam.de/statistics/statistics_cee.htm
ii ITC, 1999. Product and Market Development. Organic Food and Beverages. World Supply and Major European Markets. Geneva.
iii UNDP 2000. Changing consumption and production patterns: Organic agriculture. Commission on Sustainable Development: 8th Session, 24 April - 5 May 2000, New York.
iv Reavell, H. 1999. The wholesome quest. World of Ingredients: 58, 60-61.
v Darrington, H. 1999. Going Organic. Food Manufacture: 74;4; 38-39.
vi Institute of Food Science and Technology - http://www.ifst.org/hottop24.htm
vii Lampkin, N. 1999. Organic farming in the European Union - overview, policies and perspectives. Proceedings of Organic Farming in the European Union - Perspectives for the 21st Century. 27-28 May 1999, Baden, Austria.
viii Lyon, 2000. Proceedings of "L'agriculture biologique face ā son dčveloppement - Les Enjeux futurs", 6-8 Déc. 1999, Lyon, France (in press).
ix Fischler, F. 1999. Organic Farming and the new Common Agricultural Policy. Proceedings of Organic Farming in the European Union - Perspectives for the 21st Century. 27-28 May 1999, Baden, Austria.
x WHO 1999. Surveillance programme for control of foodborne infections and intoxications in Europe. &th Report 1993-1997. Federal Institute for Health Protection of consumers and veterinary medicine. In preparation.
xi Kuiper-Goodman, T. (1998). Food safety: mycotoxins and phycotoxins in perspective, in Mycotoxins and phycotoxins - Developments in chemistry, toxicology and food safety, eds M. Miraglia, H. van Egmond, C. Brera and J. Gilbert. IUPAC.
xii FAO/WHO 1999. Codex Alimentarius Commission Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of organically produced foods cac/gl 32-1999.
xiii FAO, 1999. Organic Agriculture. 15th Session of the Committee on Agriculture, Rome 25-29 January 1999.
xiv Langlais C. 1999 Des pesticides dans les produits bio, Biofil n°3.
xv Woese, K.; Lange, D.; Boess, C. and Bögl, K. W. 1997. A comparison of organically and conventionally grown foods - results of a review of the relevant literature. J. Sci. Food Agric.: 74; 281-293.
xvi Andersson, A. and Bergh, T. 1995. Pesticide residues in some vegetables and berries. Vår föda / Our Food, Journal of Swedish National Food Administration, 47(8): 22-24).
xvii Lecerf J.M., 1995. L'agriculture biologique: intéręt en nutrition humaine? Cah. Nutr. Diet., 30, 349-357.
xviii Dahlsted and Dlouhy, 1995. Vår föda / Our Food, Journal of Swedish National Food Administration, 1995;47(8):39-41.
xix FAO, 1997. Biological Farming in Europe. REU Technical Series 54. Rome.
xx Wallace, H. A. 1998 Beyond the Big Three. A Comprehensive Analysis of the Proposed National Organic Program. Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Docket TMD-94-00-2, April 30, 1998.
xxi Sloan, 1998. Organics: grown by the book. Food Technology: 52; 5; 32.
xxii Couzin, J., 1998. Cattle Diet Linked to Bacterial Growth. Science Vol. 281, 1578-1579.
xxiii Kuhn, F. (1999). Bestimmung von Trichothecenen im Weizen aus verschiedenen Anbausystemen mittels HPLC-MS. In Organische Analytische Chemie, Universität Basel. Basel, pp. 60.
xxiv Jörgensen, K., Rasmussen, G., Thorup I. 1995. Ochratoxin A in Danish cereals 1986-92 and daily intake by the Danish population. Food Additives and Contaminants (In press, 1995).
xxv Marx, H., Gedek, B. & Kollarczik, B. (1995). [Comparative investigations of mycotoxological status of alternatively and conventionally grown crops]. Z Lebensm Unters Forsch, 201(1), 83-6.
xxvi Olsen, M. and Möller, T. Mögel och mykotoxiner I spannmål / Mould and mycotoxines in grain. Vår föda / Our food, Journal of Swedish National Food Administration, 1995;47(8):30-33.
xxvii Raupp, J. (ed) 1996. Quality of plant products grown with manure fertilization. Fertilization systems in organic farming (concerted action AIR3-CT4-1940) Proceedings of the 4th meeting in Juva, Finland, July 6-9. Publications of the Institute for Biodynamic Research, Vol. 9, Darmstadt.
xxviii Woese, K, Lange, D., Boess, C. & Bögl, KW. 1995. Ökologisch und Konventionell erzeugte Lebensmittel im Vergleich - Eine Litteraturstudie. Bundeinstitut für gesundheitlichen Verbraucherschutz und Veterinärmedizin (BgVV-Hefte 4-5).
xxix Conklin, N. and Thompson, G. 1993. Product quality in organic and conventional produce: is there a difference? Agribusiness: 9;3; 295-307.
xxx Weibel, F.P., Bickel, R., Leuthold, S., Alfoeldi, T. and Niggli, U. 1999. Are organically grown apples tastier and healthier? A comparative field study using conventional and alternative methods to measure fruit quality. In publication.
xxxi Haglund, Å and Johansson, L. Sensorisk undersökning av morötter och tomater /Sensory testing of carrots and tomatoes. Vår föda / Our food, Journal of Swedish National Food Administration, 1995;47(8):52-55.
xxxii Acquistucci R., 1999. Technological and Nutritional Quality Indexes of Wheat Produced with Organic Agricultural Techniques. National Institute of Nutrition, Laboratory of Cereal Studies.
xxxiii International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation - http://www.iaea.org/icgfi/
xxxiv Lund, 1999. Personal communication.
xxxv European System of Cooperative Research Networks in Agriculture, see http://www.fao.org/regional/europe/erp/default.htm