Australia's organic rules a hot mess for consumers

Tracey FerrierAAP
Most consumers think 'organic' means certified ... but it's not so in Australia, says Niki Ford. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS)
Camera IconMost consumers think 'organic' means certified ... but it's not so in Australia, says Niki Ford. (Supplied/AAP PHOTOS) Credit: AAP

Sonya Dowling has lost count of how many times she’s caught butchers passing off regular, cheap chicken as her certified organic produce.

She’s sick of complaining to the consumer watchdog with little to no effect while pretenders charge premium prices for a product that’s anything but.

And she’s furious for consumers who’ve been tricked into believing they’re buying sustainable, ethically produced food free from nasties including pesticides.

“I’ve pretended to be a customer in the Melbourne markets several times over the years. Different butcher shops don’t know who I am and they’ll say ‘yes, it’s Enviroganic Farm chicken’.

“But I haven’t supplied them for years. They blatantly bone out conventional chicken and pass it off under our name.”

Ms Dowling recently shared her story with federal senators hearing an inquiry into greenwashing - the practice of making a product appear more environmentally friendly than it is.

It was one of several that should leave consumers on guard because in Australia not all organic products are created equal.

There’s the food fraud aspect of the problem that plagues fresh producers like Dowling family.

But there are plenty of other pitfalls with processed products found on supermarket shelves.

That part of the problem was brought into sharp focus when Labor Senator Karen Grogan posed a theoretical question at the inquiry’s last hearing.

If a product has 90 ingredients and only one is organic, can the word organic still be used on the box, she asked.

“Absolutely. You can in Australia. That’s our biggest challenge,” replied Niki Ford, CEO of Australian Organic Ltd.

Australian Organic Ltd is the peak industry group for producers of “certified organic” products - not to be confused with ones that simply say they are organic.

“Most consumers think organic means certified and that’s because in most other markets around the world it does. But not in Australia,” Ms Ford tells AAP.

That’s made Australian an outlier among developed countries and leaves consumers vulnerable to organic greenwashing.

Current rules, when put side by side, do seem rather perplexing.

Products intended for Australia’s domestic market can call themselves organic without independent verification. They don’t even have to comply with a particular standard.

Products imported into Australia can also say they’re organic without having to substantiate those claims.

But independent certification is required for Australian-made products bound for export.

Ms Ford says more than 3000 operators in Australia voluntarily go to the trouble and expense of obtaining certification to legitimise their claims.

“They do that because they want to give consumers exactly what they’re asking for.

“But those operators are competing on a very uneven playing field, against as many as 2000 brands/business who are claiming organic when they aren’t certified.”

She hopes when the greenwashing inquiry reports back, it will recommend Australia plays catch up and moves to mandatory certification for all organic products.

In the meantime, there are a few things consumers can do to make sure they don’t fall victim to organic greenwashing.

The biggest one is to look for products that carry the logos of Australia’s five reputable, government approved certification bodies.

For the Dowling family, consumer education and careful packaging that features their brand and that of their certifier are the best weapons they have against food fraud.

But until regulations change they say they’ll remain vulnerable to huge hits to their business.

Their sales in Victoria alone have fallen 80 per cent over the past 10 years for both small retailers and butchers.

“We strongly believe is the result of passing off and substitution,” Ms Dowling says.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission does provide advice about organic claims to help shoppers avoid being duped.

And it says all organic claims should be able to be proved to show they are not in breach of consumer protect laws.

But Ms Ford says the ACCC’s resources are stretched and compliance action has been limited. So for now, it’s a case of buyer beware and consumers knowing what to look for when they shop.

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