Organic: Production & Labelling

Uniform production requirements for organic producers across the EU, simplified rules for conversion and certification, and a risk-based control system will, the Commission says, promote fairer competition between EU organic producers and inspire more consumer trust in organic products. 

The new rules were presented in a Commission proposal for a Regulation with a view to supporting further growth of the organic sector. Addressing shortcomings in the current system, this proposal reforms the existing legal framework on organic production and the labelling of organic products.

The new rules aim to create a more harmonised system, both in the EU and for imported products, by removing many of the current exceptions in terms of production and controls. The Commission’s proposal would also try to reinforce controls by making them risk-based and make it easier for small farmers to join organic farming by introducing the possibility for them to sign up to a group certification system. In addition, new provisions on exports would address the international trade in organic products. According to the Commission, the proposed rules would also reduce administrative costs for farmers as well as improve transparency. Finally, the proposal would align the Commission’s implementing powers with the new procedures in the Lisbon Treaty.

The organic sector has experienced significant growth in the last 10 years, driven by a strong increase in demand. However, current rules were unable to keep up with the market expansion. Production rules do not sufficiently take into account evolving consumer concerns and expectations; labelling rules are complicated; there are weaknesses in the control system and in the trade regime, legislation is complex and entails a high level of administrative burden which hinders the access to the EU organic scheme for small farmers. Moreover, some exemptions that were needed for the development of the sector are no longer justified.

The need for a revision of the existing legal framework on organic production was first announced in the Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme in December 2012. Then, in May 2013, the Council adopted Conclusions calling for a revision of organic production and labelling rules.

The Commission’s proposal for a Regulation is structured in eight chapters. It starts by setting the subject matter, the scope and definitions (Chapter I) and the principles of organic production (Chapter II). Chapter III presents organic production rules, Chapter IV is devoted to rules for the labelling of organic products and Chapter V lays down rules for organic certification. Rules on trade of organic products with third countries are presented in Chapter VI. General provisions and procedural, transitional and final provisions are set out in Chapters VII and VIII respectively.

The proposal was accompanied by an Action Plan for the future of Organic Production in the EU which sets out non-legislative measures formulated into 18 Actions to help organic farmers, producers and retailers adjust to the proposed policy changes and meet future challenges.

I. Scope

The proposal establishes the principles of organic production and lays down the rules concerning organic production and the use of indications referring to organic production in labelling and advertising.

It covers products listed in Annex I to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) as well as products listed in Annex I to the proposed Regulation such as beer, chocolate, ice cream, flavoured yoghurts and sea salt. Products of hunting and fishing of wild animals are not considered organic. Mass catering operations carried out by a mass caterer are also excluded.

II. Principles of organic production

Organic production is defined as a sustainable management system for agriculture that is based on a set of principles including respect for nature’s systems, responsible use of energy and natural resources and respect of high animal welfare standards. The use of external inputs is restricted in organic production: only inputs from organic production, natural or naturally-derived substances and low solubility mineral fertilisers may be used. Organic production also excludes the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products produced from or by GMOs with the exception of veterinary medicinal products.

The above general principles become specific in the framework of agricultural activities and aquaculture and for the production of processed organic food and feed.

Specific principles applicable to agricultural activities and aquaculture include the recycling of wastes and by-products of plant and animal origin as input in plant and livestock production, feeding of aquatic organisms with feed from sustainable exploitation of fisheries, feeding of livestock with organic feed, the maintenance of plant health by preventive measures as well as the exclusion of genetic engineering, animal cloning, artificially produced polyploidy and ionising radiation from the whole organic food chain.

Specific principles applicable to the processing of organic food and feed include the production of organic food and feed from organic agricultural ingredients and organic feed materials and the limitation of the use of food and feed additives only to cases of essential technological need or for particular nutritional purposes.

III. Production rules

According to the Commission’s proposal, operators who wish to get into organic production must respect certain production rules:

1) The entire agricultural holding or aquaculture operation must be managed in compliance with the requirements applicable to organic production;

2) Any products and substances used in organic agriculture and aquaculture should be authorised as such;

3) The use of ionising radiation for the treatment of organic food or feed, or of raw materials used in organic food is prohibited;

4) With the exception of micro-enterprises, organic operators other than farmers or operators producing seaweed or aquaculture animals are required to develop a system for improving their environmental performance.

Conversion

Farmers and operators who wish to switch from conventional agriculture to organic production need to respect a conversion period, during which they need to apply organic production rules. In contrast to existing rules, the retroactive acknowledgement of the conversion period is not possible.

Products produced during that period cannot be marketed as organic. During the conversion period and as an exception from the general production rule, it is possible for an agricultural holding to split into clearly separated units, which are not all managed by organic production. Specific rules on conversion are presented in Annex II to the proposal.

Prohibition of GMOs

In obvious coherence with the general principles of organic production, the proposal prohibits the use of GMOs and products produced from or by GMOs in organic production. Unless there is an indication of GMOs on the label of the product or an accompanying document, operators can assume that the product is not a GMO or produced from GMOs.

Specific production rules

The proposal lays down specific organic production rules for plants, livestock, seaweed and aquaculture animals, processed food and feed, wine, yeast used as food and feed and other products. These category-specific rules are presented in detail in Annex II to the proposal.

Collection, packaging, transport and storing of organic products

Detailed rules for the collection, packaging, transport and storing of organic products are set out in Annex III to the proposal. According to those rules, organic and non-organic products may be collected simultaneously only where appropriate measures are taken to prevent any possible mixture or exchange with non-organic products. Organic products should be packed in such a way that their substitution would cause damage of the seal. During transport, organic feed, in conversion feed and non-organic feed must be physically separated. As for the storage of products, it is required that storage areas ensure the identification of lots.

Authorisation of products and substances used in organic production

Upon authorisation by the Commission, certain products and substances may be used in organic production as plant protection products, fertilisers, feed materials, food and feed additives, processing aids or products for cleaning and disinfection of installations used for animal and plant production.

The Commission would decide whether or not to authorise products and substances taking into account the principles of organic production and a number of criteria such as: a) their use is necessary for sustained production and essential for the intended use; b) their origin is from plants, animals, microbes or minerals; c) their use is essential for the control of a pest; d) there are no alternatives available; e) it would be impossible to produce or preserve the food or to fulfil given dietary requirements without having recourse to those products and substances.

Inclusions, amendments or withdrawals from the list of authorised products and substances for use in organic production would be notified to the Commission by Member States.

When non-authorised products or substances are detected, such products would not be permitted to be marketed as organic. Member States would be authorised by the Commission to grant national payments to compensate for the losses incurred in such instances. In addition, Member States would be able to use the instruments of the Common Agricultural Policy to cover such losses totally or in part.

IV. Labelling

Products that comply with the requirements of the Regulation would be able to use the term “organic” or the diminutives “bio” and “eco” in their labelling, advertising material or commercial documents.

In the case of processed food, the term “organic” could be used in the sales description if the product complies with the relevant category-specific production rules and if at least 95% by weight of its agricultural ingredients are organic. If it is less than 95%, organic terms may be used in the list of ingredients indicating which ingredients are organic. The list of ingredients would have to indicate the total percentage of organic ingredients in proportion to the total quantity of agricultural ingredients.

Where organic terms are used, the code number of the control authority or control body would be required to appear on the label. When the term “organic” is used in pre-packed food, the organic production logo of the EU would be required to appear on the packaging accompanied by the indication of the place of farming of the agricultural raw materials for the product (i.e. EU Agriculture; non-EU agriculture; EU/non-EU agriculture). These indications would also have to be marked in a conspicuous place and be easily visible, clearly legible and indelible.

The EU Organic logo or national and private logos may be used in the labelling, presentation and advertising of products which comply with the proposed Regulation. According to the Commission’s proposal, it is not obligatory to use the EU organic logo for products imported from third countries.  Annex V to the proposal provides more details about the use of the Logo.

V. Organic certification

Operators that produce, prepare or store organic products and who import, export or market organic products would, according to the proposed rules, receive an organic certificate. The organic certificate is issued upon notification to the Member State’s competent authorities before a product is placed on the market as organic. The organic certificate is issued in electronic form and indicates the identity of the operator, the type or range of products covered by the certificate and its period of validity.

Small-scale farmers would be able to form groups of operators applying for organic certification. Each group of operators must establish a system for internal controls, keeping track of control activities and procedures. This new system would require a person or body is nominated as being responsible for verifying the compliance of each member of the group with the rules. Deficiencies in this internal control system could lead to the withdrawal of the organic certification for the whole group.

VI. Trade with third countries

A product would be allowed to be exported from the EU as organic and bear the EU organic logo if it complies with the rules of the proposed Regulation. If there is a unilateral equivalence agreement with the third country where the product is intended to be exported, the product should comply with the rules of that third country in order to be placed on the market as organic.

A product would be allowed to be imported from a third country in order to be placed on the EU market as organic if: a) it complied with the proposed rules; b) its exporters in the third country have been subject to the control of control authorities; c) it comes from a third country with which there is a trade agreement with the EU or a unilateral equivalence agreement and d) the operators in third countries are able to provide at any time, to the importers of the national authorities, information to ensure the traceability of the organic product.

The system of unilateral equivalence would be phased-out 5 years from the application of the proposed Regulation.

Recognition of control authorities and control bodies

Control authorities and control bodies recognised by the Commission would be considered competent to carry out controls in third countries to check compliance with the rules set out in the proposal. The control authorities and control bodies would be accredited to the harmonised standard for ‘Conformity assessment – Requirements for bodies certifying products, processes and services’. Control authorities and control bodies would be supervised by the Commission in the context of a review of their recognition and on the basis of an assessment of the risk of non-compliance.

VII. General provisions

Competent authorities, control authorities and control bodies would no longer be permitted not prohibit or restrict the marketing of organic products controlled by another competent authority, control authority and control body located in another Member State on grounds relating to the production, to the labelling or to the presentation of the products, as long as the products complied with the Regulation.

Each year Member States would be required to transmit to the Commission information for the implementation and monitoring of the rules set out in the proposed Regulation and to keep a regularly updated list containing names and addresses of competent authorities, control authorities and control bodies.

By December 2021, the Commission would be required to present a Report on the availability of organic plant reproductive material and animals for breeding purposes.

VIII. Procedural, transitional and final provisions

The proposed Regulation, once adopted, would repeal Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 which currently regulates organic production and labelling of organic products.

Transitional measures are foreseen relating to: a) conversion to organic farming; b) the origin of plant reproductive material, animals for breeding purposes and young stock of aquaculture animals; c) control authorities and control bodies recognised under Article 33(3) of Regulation (EC) No 834/2007; d) applications from third countries submitted under Article 33(2) of Regulation (EC) No 834/2007; e) for stocks of organic products produced in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 834/2007.

The proposal would also amend the Official Controls Regulation (currently under examination by the Council and the European Parliament) with a view to integrate all control-related provisions for organic products into that Regulation.

Next Steps

The European Parliament and the Council will consider the Commission's proposal during 2014 and 2015.  If adopted, the new Regulation would apply from 1 July 2017.