Chasing a pot of gold
The terms ‘food authenticity’ and ‘food integrity’ are bandied around a lot (particularly by those working to support food supply chains) and the state of ‘integrity’ has become something like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We can see the rainbow (problem) but can never get to the desired outcome (food integrity), or that’s how it seems, at least.
I had the privilege of sitting in the audience at the recent Food Integrity Conference, in Nantes, France. I was a bit stunned to hear Elke Anklam, of the European Commissions’ Joint Research Committee say that she thought it was ‘mission impossible’ to authenticate organic versus conventional food. Now, this is not what those who have invested time and effort into organic produce want to hear. Why? Because organic produce is one of the food products most susceptible to fraud. It was also not what a lot of the science providers in the room wanted to hear, particularly as considerable investment has gone into developing techniques to determine whether something is organic or not. Nor was it something that consumers wanted to hear – we want to know that the food we pay a premium for is as it states (if we have chosen organic over conventional food).
Not all in agreement
Later, at the same event, another speaker argued that it wasn’t quite ‘mission impossible.’ Rather, ‘mission-pretty-jolly-difficult’; and that something called ‘mass balance’ could achieve greater transparency for organic products. The term, ‘mass balance’, brought back memories of my sixth form chemistry teacher (not good) but in this context, it was being applied as a concept to determine whether the amount of a food product produced could be reasonably expected, based on production area and production type. As an interesting example (but not specifically about organic production): in 2001-2002, in a rather surprising development, Australia imported 1,447 tonnes of honey from Singapore. What about this was so surprising? Well, Singapore does not produce honey. The mass balance here was totally crooked, which also describes the perpetrators of what is now one of the most well-known cases of honey transhipment and honey fraud. This incident did not work out well for the Australian honey industry, nor, for those who peddled in the sticky stuff with the honey, which had originated in China, and exported from Australia to the US (the honey was found to be contaminated with a banned antibiotic). Prosecutions did result.
Science to the rescue?
Along with mass balance, other scientific methods have been developed to identify whether a food product has been produced using organic principles. As an example, some tests can determine whether chemical fertilisers have been used during production, or, to determine the presence of pesticides. Natural food production has its challenges, however, as natural variability in chemical measures caused through seasonal, geographical, or processing, for example, can alter results and interfere with the ability to quantify whether something is organic or not.
It is important to remember that none of these measures exist in isolation. That is, when a producer wants to get a product certified as organic, they are required to submit a great deal of information to independent certifiers. This then allows for collation of background information and potentially for future testing against baseline data. In other words, the certification process enables the producer to be audited. This in turn provides a safeguard to consumers, but not an iron-clad guarantee. To achieve that type of confidence requires just a little bit of magic in the form of a robust regulatory environment, retailers committed to maintaining the integrity of the product, low incentive for food fraud, robust traceability measures, and so on, all of which become increasingly difficult as supply chains get longer and longer and with the distance between the consumer and producer growing as a result.
Reducing the chance of being ripped off
As a consumer, there are things that you can do to decrease the likelihood of being ripped off. Buy from retailers who have a strong relationship with their producer network (and who will hold those producers to account on your behalf) and look for certification from independent certification bodies (while these certification marks are can also be counterfeited or misrepresented the certification bodies have a vested interest in maintaining the integrity of their certification brand and are likely to actively work to protect it-and then, by default, the producer and you, the consumer). In the US, the (annoying) sticker on loose organic produce will have a five digit PLU (price look up) code rather than the standard four digits; shopping at farmers markets will bring you closer to the producer and give you the chance to talk about production methods, and, Finally, it is important to remember that not all organic produce is certified. Certification can be expensive and time consuming, with many small producers opting to just produce according to organic principles without receiving the associated certification. These do tend to be smaller producers who sell locally – meaning shorter supply chains and a greater opportunity to engage with the person with actual dirt under their fingernails.