Organic food needs a universally endorsed regulatory regime

Consumer Council findings run counter to the general belief that food produced organically is more likely to be free from harmful chemicals and therefore safer and healthier

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:42pm

To many consumers, the term “organic” is the synonym of healthy. Food that comes with such label is often seen as safer and more nutritious. Those with deep pockets are willing to pay more for what they believe to be better produce, even though research on this front remains inconclusive.

Credit goes to the Consumer Council for giving consumers more food for thought before parting with their money for organic products. According to its latest tests, about 40 per cent of the 75 “organic” produce samples contained pesticide residue. One purple sweet potato sample from the mainland contained excessive heavy metal. A US carrot sample had metal close to the threshold. Non-organic samples also have traces of contaminants. But the majority is within safety limits.

The findings run counter to the general belief that food produced organically is more likely to be free from harmful chemicals and therefore safer and healthier.

The myth owes much to the lack of a universally endorsed regulatory regime. While some countries have laws governing organic food labelling, the industry remains largely self-regulatory. This is not helped by inconclusive studies on the health benefits of organic food, leaving the possibility that consumers are being given one-sided information.

The situation in Hong Kong is similar. Currently, only pre-packaged food is required to spell out its nutrient content on the label. There is no specific law restricting what can and cannot be used in producing organic food. Certification of local organic farms by non-government agencies only emerged after 2002. But the lack of statutory control means produce often can be passed off as organic and sold at higher prices.

It is up to consumers to decide whether it is worth paying more for food that is not necessarily chemical-free. But they need credible information to make informed choices. The industry should strengthen publicity and accreditation. Officials should also explore better ways to enhance the safety of organic food.