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Organic standards

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There are two main standards for organic products which currently operate in Australia:

  • the National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce, which is the mandatory export standard under the Export Control Act 1982
  • the Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products (AS 6000), which is a voluntary standard in the domestic market

The National Standard acted as a de facto domestic standard until 2009. Due to an increase in unsubstantiated organic claims and a lack of clear definition of the term ‘organic’, the AS 6000‑2009 was created and implemented as another domestic standard for organic produce, which was also extended to include organic produce imported into Australia. The AS 6000‑2009 was modelled on the National Standard and, as a result, the two standards are similar. However, the two standards have diverged since 2009 as amendments to the National Standard have not been incorporated into AS 6000‑2009.

Until 2009, the Australian Government supported the application of the national standard for both exports and the domestic market. In fact, the original National Standard (1992) had as its first objective “to protect consumers against deception and fraud in the market place and unsubstantiated product claims”.

Regulation of organic products

The Australian organic sector originally developed without state involvement over several decades. Governments largely ignored the organic sector as a fringe activity, although organic producers could take advantage of some mainstream government support, through research, development and extension programs.

Export regulations

Australian Government recognition of the industry first came with a 1989 discussion paper within the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) calling for a national approach to certification. This was considered necessary for Australia to gain access to export markets that existing private organic certification alone would not easily permit. The Australian Government became more fully involved in 1990, when it helped establish the Organic Produce Advisory Committee (OPAC), a body formed to develop a national export standard under the Export Control Act.

A National Standard for Organic and Bio-dynamic Produce was compiled by OPAC[1], under the auspices of AQIS, and was first implemented in 1992. It provided guidance for private certifiers who enforced private standards that needed to exceed the National Standard in order that they could be recognised certifiers by AQIS—in essence, the state regulated certifiers who, in turn, certify farm-level producers and supply chain operators.

OIECC was disbanded in 2009, following a decision of the Australian Government to reduce its active involvement in industry regulation. In its place, the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council (OISCC) formed to take responsibility for the National Standard and the National Standard Sub-Committee (which was previously administered by the Department). OISCC members include the six certification bodies, the OFA, the Australia National Retailers Association (represented by Woolworths) and the National Farmers Federation. DAWR acts as observer at OISCC meetings.

There are currently six certification bodies accredited for organic certification under the National Standard, administered by DAWR (previously AQIS). The Department conducts annual audits to verify that all organic certification issued by these bodies is in accordance with the requirements of the National Standard. Each of the six certifiers must also meet strict criteria with regards to certification procedures and provide transparent information regarding fee structures and service provision, in accordance with the International Standard (ISO 17065) and various administrative requirements under the Export Control Act.

The certifiers must also meet the requirements of the international organic regulations of the European Union, Taiwan and Japan, if they want to accredit product for export to these regions, under equivalency arrangements. Several of these Australian organic certification bodies also hold direct accreditation with overseas governments, such as the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program, to certify products for export into the individual country. To be directly accredited, these Australian organic certifiers must meet that country’s legislative requirements and be audited by that Government.

The provision of organic certification in Australia gives market access for Australian producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers to export into those countries who possess organic regulation and strong labelling laws.

Domestic regulations

There is no mandatory requirement for certification of organic product sold domestically in Australia. In the absence of specific domestic regulation for organic production, the export regulation of organics became the de facto domestic regulation of the sector, through private certification standards aligned to the National Standard. Many organic businesses choose to be certified by an organic certification body to underpin truth in labelling requirements and promote consumer confidence.

Domestic organic standards used in Australia are generally owned and managed by these private certifiers. Domestically marketed organic products are commonly certified by one of the six private certifiers who base their certification standards on the national export standard.

The voluntary Australian Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products (AS 6000) was released on 9 October 2009 and updated in 2015. Standards Australia developed AS 6000 through a representative committee comprising organic stakeholders, including certifiers, retailers, manufacturers, consumer groups and government agencies. Only a small proportion of certified operators are certified to the AS 6000—most certifiers adopt the National Standard, even for domestic certification purposes.  The AS 6000 must be applied in conjunction with the MP100, which is the document for outline certification requirements.  The MP100 is currently incomplete and not released for use.

Import regulation

There is an extensive regulatory system in place which provides guarantees in food chain integrity. For example, the current arrangements for importing food products labelled as organic or bio-dynamic into Australia allow trade to occur freely, provided that:

  • all quarantine requirements are met (Biosecurity Act 2015); and
  • all imported food safety requirements are met (Imported Food Control Act 1992); and
  • the goods are truthfully labelled (Australian Competition and Consumer Act 2010).

More detail is available in Australian Legal Framework for the Import and Export of Organic Products.[2]

Imported organic products may be certified by overseas certifiers (who may apply standards consistent with those applying in the case of Australia’s certified exports), may not be certified at all (as long as they are still truthfully labelled), or may even be certified by an Australian certifier against their private domestic standards (which may align with the National Standard or AS 6000). However, these standards are not mandatory or necessarily consistent—and they are confusing for consumers.

Standards and integrity

Most organic stakeholders identify issues around the integrity of Australian organic standards as being critically important to the future of the industry and want these matters to be given consideration in this review.

Central to the success of Australia’s organic industry, is the need to maintain trust in a credible system of standards—including standards development, enforcement, compliance and education—and the ways to ensure that there is a system with high levels of integrity—high compliance, minimal fraud, strong consumer recognition. Organic producers are concerned that, without these outcomes, there is an erosion of trust in organic products and pressure on prices from non‑certified products.

Regulations pertaining to the production, import, export and sale of products claiming “organic or bio-dynamic” status are present in all three levels of Australia’s governments, as well as in case law. The treatment of organic products under Australia’s federal legislation is different depending on whether the organic products are destined for export or the domestic market. While the export of organic products is captured directly under Australia’s export legislation, organic goods produced for the domestic market and imported organic goods are captured indirectly through overarching legislation and regulation for foodstuffs.

Numerous attempts to have organic products recognised under food labelling laws or other forms of domestic regulation have been denied.

Poor domestic market integrity is a direct result of confused standards for organic certification, which do little to promote integrity and may even undermine it.

Protecting consumers

Consumers of organic produce are particularly vulnerable, in that they must rely on product labelling for information pertaining to the nature and composition of the product.

  • Such claims cannot be easily verified by the consumer independently.
  • In addition, organic produce is commonly sold at a premium price, due to the perceived health and environmental benefits.

These two factors place Australian organic consumers in a vulnerable position, as suppliers can easily take advantage of the financial benefits associated with such organic claims without due substantiation. This is particularly true with the labelling of organic products intended for the Australian domestic market, as such products can claim to be ‘organic’ without meeting the relevant standards, namely the AS 6000.[3]

A survey in 2014 of how consumers determine whether a product is organic was published in that year’s Australian Organic Market Report. Of 1001 Australian consumers that were surveyed, 64 per cent believed that an item was organic if the term ‘organic’ appeared on the produce label, whereas 34 per cent of consumers surveyed believed the item was organic if an organic certification symbol appeared on the product label. The variation in results demonstrates that there is a lack of understanding among Australian organic consumers about the organic industry and organic certification processes.[4]

Despite the stringent food labelling requirements enforced by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, inconsistent organic labelling requirements undermine the rationale for the strict code in labelling requirements—FSANZ’s goals of ensuring consumer confidence, protection, informed decision making and the facilitation of an efficiently regulated food market.

The ACCC stipulates that consumers purchasing organic products should be able to feel confident that the ingredients are in fact organic. While truth in advertising is consistently on the ACCC’s Compliance and Enforcement Policy priority list, given the vulnerability of consumers of premium and credence produce (including but not limited to organic produce), it is questionable whether the current organic co‑regulatory framework within Australia adequately protects consumers.[5]

There is clearly an opportunity for the industry, consumers and government to collaborate on better labelling of organic products and improved market integrity.

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[1] OPAC later developed into OPEC (Organic Production Export Committee) and later still into OIECC (Organic Industry Export Consultative Committee). For more information, see http://www.elspl.com.au/OrgAg/4-OA-Pubs/4-OA-Publications/Pub-B-MktgTrade/OA-Mktg-B18-OrgStandards-JOS-2008.pdf).

[2] Authored by MA Will (OISCC) in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (2016).

[3] Christina Do (2015), Organic Food Labelling in Australia, University of Queensland Law Journal, Vol 34(1).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.