How do you know if organic food really is organic? As the sector booms, more customers are looking for official certification labels. But there are several types that are often confusing and sometimes even hard to find.
Organic products may be hiding in the supermarket
Visitors to the world's largest agriculture fair Green Week, which draws to a close on Sunday, Jan. 27, in Berlin, will have noticed that organic food is more than just a trend. With a market share of 4 percent, it's even become a staple in ordinary supermarkets across Europe.
But the kinds of labels on food packages -- both legitimate certifications and misleading advertising statements -- are exploding right along with the sector.
"This is confusing for the customer," said Alexander Gerber from the Association of Ecological Food in Berlin.
Plenty of room to grow
Even dog food has gone organic
Many shoppers don't really even know what "organic" means and that keeps them from purchasing specially labeled organic products, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young.
Despite double-digit growth, the sector still has lots of potential, the study said, adding that nearly 80 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for organic products, but only 37 percent do so on a regular basis.
Bioland, Demeter, BioBio, Naturkind, Bio Smiley -- the organic brand names in Germany alone can be overwhelming and packaging can be confusing.
German seal means EU standards
"We recommend the state certification seal, because it guarantees that the product you're buying really is organic," said Christiane Kunzel from the consumer protection agency in North Rhine-Westphalia.
German has cut subsidies for farmers to convert to organic production
Germany introduced a state certification in 2001, which indicates that a product has fulfilled the European Union's minimum requirements for organic products. Everything sold in Europe that is labeled with the word "organic" must meet these provisions. Labels such as "eco-friendly" and "ecologically grown" are not required to meet the regulations.
To earn the "organic" designation, foodstuff sold in Europe must have been product at least 95 percent organically. They cannot have been treated with genetically altered organisms, exposed to radioactive material, or fertilized with highly soluble minerals that could seep into the groundwater.
People don't buy what they can't see
Nearly all organic products are labeled with the voluntary state certification.
"It's used everywhere because it gives the customers security," said Gerber.
But the devil is in the details.
Since food containers often get crowded with plenty of other stuff -- like pictures, slogans and health promises -- the state certification label tends to get relocated to the side or back of the package and customers overlook it. Thus, many don't realize that their selection of organic items is actually larger than they think.
In other European countries like Britain, France, Denmark and Switzerland, for example, the confusion is even greater because, though they have a state organic certification, there is no common label.
Importing produce means more CO2 emissions
This will all change, however, in 2009, when a common EU label is introduced for organic products -- a light green circle with 12 European stars on it. Additional tags will also be introduced to indicate particularly earth-friendly or non-GM foods.
Next year's EU certification comes with one slight change that has environmental groups up in arms: Traces of genetically altered organisms will be permitted. But at least consumers will be sure of what they're putting in their shopping cart.
Organic from abroad is less earth-friendly
But the German Farming Association is demanding just that, as cheap organic produce from New Zealand or China is making life difficult for the local farmers. The University of Kassel has estimated that a third of organic products on the supermarket shelves in Germany already come from abroad and the trend is rising.
Members of the farming association also question whether stringent quality controls of organic food can be maintained with so much of demand for organic products being met by foreign producers.
But there are other good reasons to stick to local produce, according to Kunzel. He added that food should be evaluated by its overall ecological footprint -- not conditions under which it is produced -- since long-distance transport leads to harmful CO2 emissions.
"You have to keep the ecological picture in perspective and look at the whole production chain. Organic apples from China are seen critically because they had to be transported a long way to get here," said Kunzel.