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The public’s appetite for organic produce has created a huge incentive for fraud. It’s time to regulate the industry properly. Plus the pre-poached egg
BY ALEX RENTON
Who regulates the organic industry?
I’m feeling bullied by the flood of organic labels. I’m not wholly convinced of the health beneﬁts, and while traditionally grown foods, especially vegetables, can produce Proustian taste thrills, there’s a trade-off in high price and dubious quality. But you need a hard heart to reach for the standard bananas when your darling toddler could be ingesting organic (why did it take the supermarkets so long to realise that the way to nail us was to put organic and standard side-by-side, rather than hiding it with soya milk in the aisle reserved for vegans and other weirdos?). But organic shampoo? No thanks. More to the point is the vast gap between what consumers think organic means and what it really does mean, particularly in meat production, where the lives and deaths of most animals are just as brutish and nasty as they ever were. (Or nastier: some vets point out that since use of antibiotics is limited under organic rules, organically reared animals may suffer more if they get disease.) This summer there have been signs that the organic bubble is over-swollen. The big supermarkets have been complaining that they cannot remotely satisfy consumer demand for organic meat or even milk. Sales of organic produce increased by 30 per cent last year (and in meat products by an amazing 139 per cent from 2001 to 2004) and the British spent £1.6bn on organic food in 2005. But a third of all organic food is imported. Naturally, fraudulent labelling and certiﬁcation are on the rise—as far as that can be measured, in a very gently regulated industry. The problems go down the supply chain. Though the acreage devoted to organic production in Britain increased vastly (between 1987 and 2004, it grew from 8,000 hectares to 700,000, 3.4 per cent of all farmland), it is now in decline. Producers are being put off by changes in the grant structures and a complex certifying process. Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s says it could sell three times the amount of British organic beef it can get hold of—and other
30 PROSPECT September 2006
chains have turned to flying in beef from Argentina, thus posing liberalminded consumers with an ethical conundrum. The supermarkets will continue to push, of course, because of the fabulous premium on organic foods, even on traditionally narrow-margin staples such as bread, eggs and milk. All of these forces provide a huge incentive to fraud. But no one has any idea of its extent, beyond the anecdotal. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) oversees the enforcement of organic rules, but certiﬁcation is devolved to ten commercial bodies. Some of these, like the Soil Association, have their roots in environmental campaigning, others are purely practical; but all are run by or closely tied to the industry. The businessman behind the recent launch of “the world’s ﬁrst organically certiﬁed underwear” also chairs the Soil Association’s textiles committee. Defra’s own advisory board on organics is largely made up of people who make their living out of them. The FSA relies on local authorities to police organic foods. But most do not test proactively: my local council, Edinburgh, tells me its trading standards department has never had a complaint about, and thus never investigated, organic labelling. How likely is a customer to complain that their apple isn’t organic? The FSA is working on tests that could be used to identify antibiotics or chemical fertilisers—but even with an isotopic imager, it’s hard to tell whether the nitrogen in a carrot has come from chicken manure or out of a sack from Zeneca Agrochemicals. “Trading standards don’t have anything like the capacity to properly monitor a market growing like this one,” says Emma Hockridge of the food policy lobby group Sustain. The FSA is promising more funds, particularly to tackle organic produce coming from abroad, whose provenance is taken largely on trust from the authority in the country of origin. One organic cheese producer in the southwest says that the current system in Britain also depends largely on trust, a legacy of the days when organic farming was a hippyish affair. “The certiﬁers
come round once a year to have a look at your books, and take samples. But getting round the rules would not be hard.” So a cheese producer faced with a shortage of organic milk could take a load from the non-organic dairy farm down the road? “I suppose they could— I think we all just assume we’re nicer people than that, and that’s what organic is about.” But what it’s really about today is big business: now that organics has dropped the beard and sandals, its regulation needs to get real too.
The force behind your gastropub
The pre-poached egg is the latest invention from Brake Bros, one of the most inﬂuential food innovators in the country, and certainly the least publicised. Brake, Britain’s biggest catering trade supplier, will now provide a heat-sealed ready-to-serve poached egg to take the hassle out of—well, out of breaking a fresh egg into a saucepan of simmering water and swilling it around. You may eat one sooner than you think. Brake Bros—motto: “Serve the Caterer”—is the force behind tens of thousands of high street bistros, hotel chains and poshed-up pubs. Though the company is Britain’s (and France’s) largest readymeal wholesaler, with 100,000 customers in this country, it is understandably shy, and won’t discuss the egg, let alone its client list. If you want to test how genuine your local gastropub is you need to rise early. Many establishments ask that the Brake Bros van arrives before dawn, so that no one can spot it delivering its microwaveready packets of “aspirational food.” s
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