I’ve just arrived back from the USA where I’ve been working with our new US director, Leah Garcés. Whilst there, Leah briefed me on a particularly worrying issue that’s arisen around organic foods. Having labels that we trust is a big part of building confidence in our food system. When the labels are misleading or meaningless, that is when things start to go wrong.
Sadly, existing labels can be a minefield. In the UK, our recent report showed how the ‘Red Tractor‘ label all too often assures little more on animal welfare than compliance with minimum laws. It’s a position the scheme sadly hasn’t budged from since I analysed Britain’s main farm assurance schemes ten years ago.
On a more positive note, our latest assessment shows the Soil Association organic label as coming top in the animal welfare stakes, just as it did a decade ago.
Whilst in the US, I was deeply concerned to learn about a recent announcement stating that the world’s two largest organic markets – the EU and the US – had entered into an ‘equivalency’ agreement. This means that organic farm animal welfare products from the US can be sold as ‘equivalent’ to EU farm animal welfare products, and vice versa. What’s the problem? Put simply, they are not equivalent! In general, US organic standards for animal welfare fall well below those in the EU. In fact, some of the practices permitted in the US organic standards would be illegal in the EU.
For example, electric goads are banned outright in EU organic standards. They are permitted under some circumstances in the US organic standards. Another example, organic standards in the US don’t necessarily have to allow animals to have outdoor access, i.e. dirt beneath their feet and sky above their heads. There are pending proposals to change this, but they are likely to take years to come into effect. At present US organic farms may use so-called ‘porches’, which are areas enclosed with screens, concrete floors and a roof. That’s a far cry from what the EU consumer expects from an organic label. Ducks on US organic farms don’t have to be given access to a pool or lake to swim in. The list goes on.
Next month, this agreement comes into effect. EU citizens may see USA farm animal products on their shelves with the label ‘organic’, despite them not having to be equivalent to EU standards on animal welfare grounds. It seems to me that this development can only serve to drag down the good name of ‘organic’ across the board; unless something is done, and quick.
Thankfully, there’s an opportunity to make a difference. At the end of May, the US National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will discuss revising these standards. We must urge the NOSB to make US standards truly equivalent. They need to put farm animal welfare first.
Our US director will be attending this meeting. We’ll be calling for urgent revisions to ensure that consumer expectations on animal welfare are genuinely met across both regions. Please help us by ‘liking‘ our action on Facebook so we can let them know how upset EU consumers are about this agreement.
At the same time, if you’re out shopping for meat, milk or eggs, please continue to look for products clearly labeled as ‘free range’, ‘Freedom Food’ or Soil Association organic.
As always, thank you.