What you probably don’t realise about ‘organic’ products
MANY Australians are being deceived by food producers who call their products "organic" when they are not.
"It's disgusting. You put your trust in them," said Gretchen Vidin, who says she was fooled into spending about $7,000 over the past two years by a market grower who advertised her conventional produce as organic.
She later found out the grower used chemicals that were so toxic most conventional growers stopped using them a decade ago. The grower also purchased limp fruit and vegetables from Sydney's Flemington Markets, passed them off as organic and charged up to triple the amount stallholders around her were asking.
Gretchen buys organic for health reasons, in line with the motivations of 51 per cent of organic shoppers, according to the recent Australian Organic Market Report 2017.
"I had thyroid cancer and, for the past two years, have been juicing every day. I'm trying to keep my chemical quota down to reduce the risk of getting cancer again," she said.
Gretchen found out the truth last month when an employee exposed the false promotion. Nothing much happened. The employee resigned in disgust and the grower did remove her "organic" stickers and signs for a month but reinstated them recently and continues trading, free of penalty, in the same CBD locations she has been selling for years.
THE TERM 'ORGANIC' ISN'T REGULATED
This case, one of thousands of "greenwashing" incidents around Australia, exposes a giant gap in the legal framework. The term "organic" is not regulated in Australia as it is in most other countries.
Daria Rydczak, a senior technical officer from Australian Certified Organic (ACO), said unscrupulous market growers are repeat offenders. "We phone growers and manufacturers, point out their claims are fraudulent and they say, 'What are you going to do, sue me?' They don't care.
"The ACCC is not pressing on it hard enough. They would have to set-up a new department to deal with all the fraud that is going on at the moment."
The ACO has referred more than a hundred cases of suspected fraud to the ACCC in the past year. When the ACCC was asked why it had taken no action on any of these complaints it said in a statement, "The ACCC is not able to make any comments in relation to conduct of the matters raised."
It pointed out that under Australian Consumer Law businesses "must not engage in conduct that is likely to mislead or deceive" or "make false or misleading claims or statements". It cited two cases it had successfully prosecuted, concerning "organic" eggs a decade ago and "organic" water four years ago.
This is a prohibitively expensive remedy for most consumers however.
The widespread use of the term "organic" is not limited to the food aisle. The case of Organic Choice™, a cleaning products range that has national shelf space at Coles supermarkets, was recently the subject of a complaint to the ACCC by the ACO.
The only ingredients listed as certified organic in the range are some essential oils, which typically make up a fraction of one per cent of the contents.
News.com.au asked Andrew Chaney, the Managing Director of Aware Environmental, the company that manufacturers Organic Choice™, what percentage of ingredients in his products were organic.
"I don't know the percentage. Why is that relevant?" he replied.
"We don't think we're breaking any rules. If there's a letter of the law we're breaking we'd like to know," he said.
He said his products contained "a lot more than 1 per cent", agreed to find out what percentage of ingredients were organic and let us know. That was a month ago and we're still waiting to hear from him.
THE DARKER SIDE
Marg Will, CEO of Organic Systems & Solutions, says, "This happens all the time and it is incredibly frustrating because it's the consumer who suffers."
She said the problem had an even darker side. "Lobbyists for multinational chemical companies are very active in trying to convince politicians to allow GMOs in food, a practice that is outlawed for certified organic producers.
"There are a great many forces at work with more money than the organic industry," she said.
Martin Meek, an ACO director and partner in United Organics, a wholesaler and exporter, agrees.
"I think the government is concerned that regulating the word 'organic' would open a big scary door to regulation of other agricultural standards.
"Every time we have tried to lobby, the government comes back and says the industry should self-regulate. The biggest competition to organic products are those pretending to be organic and we can't protect ourselves from that without legislation."
The term "organic" is, ironically, regulated in Australian export law.
"It's insane that our export customers can be sure about the organic content, when our domestic market can't," Martin said.
INDUSTRY IS FIGHTING BACK
The organic industry is, however, fighting back. It is talking to the ACCC, setting up an online consumer complaints portal with a direct feed to the ACCC and has developed a new organic mark that will be making its way on to supermarkets shelves soon. This gives greater clarity as there are six certifying bodies in Australia, all with their own logos.
"The organic industry's got to get better at telling people what it is," Martin said.
"We're just too polite. We don't want to pick a fight but I think we need to start standing our ground a little bit more."