The Australian organic sector is one of the most successful industry-regulated sectors in the country, and also a rare example of an industry requesting the government to introduce legislation for governance as opposed to others such as the non-alcoholic beverage industry.
At present, there are no government-enforced domestic organic standards governing the sector, although a set of standards dubbed the National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce (National Export Standard) does exist to govern organic product exports to international markets does exist, which has essentially been adopted by the industry in its self-regulation.
“In the absence of legislation, we basically came together as an industry, above individual competing interests, to agree on using the National Export Standard locally,” Andrew Monk, Chairman of Murray River Organics and previous Chairman of industry body Australian Organic, told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“The local organic industry is pretty strongly self-regulated because apart from agreeing on that standards, we’ve also got a marketplace where major retailers such as Coles and Woolworths have both demanded and supported this; and we’ve also got complementary consumer laws enforced by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to handle organic claims well.
“So every time we lobby for domestic legislation, we’re usually asked why we want this, being basically the paragon of self-regulation in Australia – but the main is really for the exports scene. Having this would enable simpler market access for companies, especially for those with big export plans.”
At present, companies such as Murray River Organics need to maintain multiple different organic accreditations from different countries such as China, the United States, Korea, EU and so on, just to enable it to export to the various markets – and this maintenance costs both time and money. Domestic legislation would help to reduce this burden.
“Formalising a local national organic standard would mean that we can seek direct equivalence with other countries, especially our major trading partners, and open up an easier pathway for bilateral negotiations,” said Monk.
“We do have equivalence arrangements with regions such as the EU, but this would really give us better ability to manage export arrangements, in addition to clearing up confusion in the marketplace over standards usage.
“I do believe there is now a clear path forward to achieving this domestic legislation, and that in the future we will be seeing legislation that can bring Australia up to our major trading partners’ levels.”
The National Export Standard as currently adopted by the industry requires all food manufacturers wanting to make an organic claim to comply with criteria such as meeting the requirements within the standard as well as being certified by a government accredited certifier such as Australian Organic or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA).
Monk also believes that Australian Organic’s ‘bud logo’ (see picture) which it uses to represent organic certification will eventually morph to become the national mark of organic certification.
Current confusion: AS 6000
One of the main reasons for organic regulatory confusion in Australia is the presence of another set of standards dubbed AS 6000 created for the domestic market, yet rarely used.
“AS 6000 is almost identical to the National Export Standard because during the forum to create that, we pretty much got government approval to skirt around copyright for the latter to use it,” said Monk.
“There are some who want this to be recognized as the domestic legislation, and the outcome would ironically really be the same, but I don’t think this will be the case – the National Export Standard will likely be the one referenced, as the formal draft exposure documentation says that there will be four years of [transitioning whilst] using this as the domestic standard.”
COVID-19 and organic
All that said, the organic industry has been experiencing a recent boom due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, Monk added, mostly due to its close correlation with health and wellness for consumers.
“I hate to use this term, but it’s really been fantastic [for organic product sales] especially due to stronger health and wellness consumer trends,” he said.
“Our metrics have shown a significant uplift in demand for organic products, and it’s due to both this as well as organic foods being able to make those clean claims which consumers are also looking for, whether it’s muesli, chocolates, red meat, dairy or any other organic product.”
The month of September is Organic Awareness month in Australia.