Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Geoffrey Hollis (F 25)

  This memorandum is submitted in response to the Committee's press notice No. 25, dated 5 May 2000. I am particularly concerned about the methods used to market organic food, which are often very misleading, and can be illegal. In my view they damage public health and increase health inequalities.

  My interest stems from 1989-91, when I was the head of Pesticides Safety Division in the Ministry of Agriculture. My task was to ensure that food produced using pesticides was safe. Currently I am a non-Executive Director of East & North Herts Health Authority, which gives me some insight into public health.

  EU law prohibits claims which suggest that organic food is somehow better than conventionally produced food. Article 10, paragraph 2, of Council Regulation No. 2092/91 states "No claim may be made on the label or advertising material that suggests to the purchaser that the indication "organic" constitutes a guarantee of superior organoleptic, nutritional or salubrious quality." ("Salubrious" is not a good translation of the French original—"wholesome" is nearer the meaning). The intention of the Regulation is to make clear that the description "organic food" is a definition of origin, not a guarantee of any kind of quality. This Regulation is directly applicable in the UK.

  Increasingly advocates of organic food are overstepping this line, and much publicity material now suggests that organic food is somehow good for consumers, and definitely superior to conventionally produced food.

  As an example, I enclose details [not printed] of a recent complaint which I made against a [not printed] booklet by Tesco supporting its range of organic foods. Enclosed are the verdict of the Advertising Standards Authority [not printed], which upheld all three elements of my complaint, and extracts [not printed] from The Independent newspaper of 10 May which reported this verdict.

  Since then I have also complained to the Authority about a similar brochure put out by Sainsbury's, which is if anything worse than the Tesco one. It makes similar misleading claims about the use of chemicals in organic food, and its "slightly increased" price. In addition, it claims that organic livestock farming does not use veterinary medicines, which is untrue. Most damagingly it contains the allegation that organic foods are "good for you". This is contained in a paragraph written by the Director of the Soil Association, and is clearly illegal. My understanding is that the Authority has written to Sainsbury's asking them to change all these claims.

  I have considerable evidence of other attempts by the Soil Association and supporters of organic food to suggest that conventional food is less safe than organic food. Also attached is a piece headed Right of Reply [not printed] from the Independent of 12th May, written by the Director of the Soil Association. Mr Holden asserts that there is "growing evidence of cost to public health" from "intensive chemical farming". He also mentions "NHS costs". This is completely without foundation. If necessary I can provide similar claims to the Committee.

  Supermarkets have a commercial interest in puffing organic food, since independent surveys show that a typical organic shopping basket costs around 70 per cent more than a conventional one. This gives a much higher cash flow, which boosts their profits, and probably increased gross margins too.

  The Soil Association also have a vested interest in misleading consumers into believing that organic food is somehow better for them. Although the Association is a charity, it has a commercial subsidiary which gains revenue from certificating organic farmers for a fee.

  These attempts to persuade consumers that organic food is "safer" and more desirable than conventional food are, in my view, extremely damaging. There is no proof that consumers benefit from eating organic food. Indeed there have been suggestions that the use of animal manure on organic farms presents a risk of contamination with E.coli 0157. My concern is that consumers will be conned into believing that organic food is better for them and will therefore eat less fruit and vegetables than they otherwise would do, because of the increase in cost. This is especially true for poorer consumers, who tend to eat less well than richer people, and who have worse health as a consequence. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health have both stressed the importance of fruit and vegetables in the national diet. Attempts to mislead consumers about the benefits of organic food are therefore likely to hurt public health, and increase health inequalities.

9 June 2000

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