May 14, 2014
The organic sector must engage now with the institutions of the European Union if it is to secure the right outcome for new legislation on organic food.
With all the hype around the upcoming European Parliamentary election (even though many around Europe have not noticed) one might be forgiven to have missed the release at the end of March of a new proposed regulation on organic food production and the labelling of organic food products by the Commission.
This proposal is one born of the success of the industry over the last decade or so: despite an on-going economic crisis, the organic sector in the EU has grown fourfold, whilst the amount of land devoted to organic food production has doubled. So, the Commission has decided new regulation is needed to ensure the sustainable development of the industry. And while the average citizen will probably be unaware of this legislative development, the organic sector has certainly taken good notice and is gearing up to make its voice heard during the negotiations which will take place over the next few months.
I won’t go into too much detail on the proposals themselves – such detail tends not to make for an especially exciting column – but some of the suggested changes appear to be a welcome effort to clarify and harmonise rules. On the issue of organic production, for example, the Commission is looking to strengthen and harmonise the rules removing various exemptions and derogations that are currently allowed.
Similarly, in the field of official controls the Commission wants to reinforce the risk based approach, removing the requirement for a mandatory annual physical verification of compliance of all operators and increase transparency with regard to fees that may be collected for the controls.
Alongside the proposal, the Commission has published an action plan to support the growth of the organic farming sector, setting out the steps that will be taken over the next few years. These include the publication of a document presenting the rules applicable to organic production, processors and trade; the development of a system of electronic certification for import; and the development and implementation of an organic fraud prevention policy, among other measures.
Clarity and commitment to cut down on the sort of food fraud which can imperil the organic sector’s reputation is all welcome. But, some in the EU are uneasy that new rules may be far too burdensome and there are ominous rumblings from the two big EU powers, France and Germany, that they are particularly dissatisfied.
As ever with the EU though, don’t expect too much to happen too quickly – it is unlikely that the regulation will become law before the end of 2015. After being published, the proposal has been assigned for scrutiny to the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) which will not start working on it until next July at the very earliest. After this scrutiny process the Council, which is made up of representatives from the 28 Member States, will then have its say.
The debate will start soon, so now is the time for the organic sector to start looking at this proposed law, its advantages and its disadvantages – and how they can influence its development, maximising opportunities and identifying threats.
Despite the criticisms which have already been leveraged against the proposal, this draft regulation and action plan can be seen as a vote of confidence from the European Commission in the EU’s organic sector – and given the millions of consumers who choose to buy organic products every day in Europe, why not?
Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of leading public affairs Consultancy www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk whose Food Regulation Team advise many organisations and businesses in the specialist food product sector. He is also Director of Strategy of consumer organisation Consumers for Health Choice www.consumersforhealthchoice.com and of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance www.essna.com.