Are organic labels in Singapore telling the truth?

Our spot research reveals that organic certifications have varying levels of checks, which most consumers are unaware of.

The next time you walk into a store to pick up organic produce, be sure to read beyond the label.

While organic labels come with an overarching guarantee that the product has little to no pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), not all have stringent criteria.

 Are organic labels in Singapore telling the truth?

According to the Health Promotion Board, the label refers to “the way farmers grow and process agricultural products such as fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat without using artificial fertilisers and pesticides”.

These farmers may encourage the growth of insect and bird species to rid crops of pests. They also remove weeds by hand instead of using herbicides, resulting in higher costs.  This is passed to consumers who frequent the organic section of neighbourhood supermarkets and speciality outlets.

Even so, the growing circle of Singapore consumers don’t seem to mind. A recent report in The New Paper said supermarkets NTUC FairPrice and Cold Storage saw a double digit growth in organic sales last year as compared to 2014.

Local grocery websites such as SG Organic and BestOrganicFood have also made it easier for consumers to get their fix.

Going organic: A worthy health investment?

Even though organic products come at a premium, most consumers are willing spenders for health. Take for instance enrichment trainer Puvanes Balakrishnan, whose grocery bills have increased by 30 to 40 per cent since 2011.

Organic produce makes up close to half of the 35-year-old’s shopping basket. She picks up everything from fruit to gluten-free breakfast cereal and even toiletries at FairPrice Finest, Cold Storage, Mustafa and portal iHerb.

Ms Balakrishnan spends time reading the labels to make sure that products are free of growth hormones and chemical fertilisers.

“Of course, these specifics do not mean that something is completely organic,” she admitted. “But I guess it is the closest you can get.”

For the less savvy customer, just reaching for an item in the organic section doesn’t guarantee a universal standard.

Here’s why:

1) Aerinlé Litmus Test

 Are organic labels in Singapore telling the truth?

At Bugis Junction’s Cold Storage outlet, all organic fruit and vegetables were imported by Zenxin Agri-Organic Food. However, there were at least nine different certifications. Here are the discrepancies between three major labels:

 Are organic labels in Singapore telling the truth?

Source: USDA, EU Organic and DEMETER

2) No local certification

Discrepancies among imports aside, the lack of a Singapore-grown certification leaves customers lost when it comes to local products.

“The current Singapore Food Regulations do not specify the requirements for the use of claims suggesting that a food product is organically produced or is free of gluten,” according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).

“To ensure consumers’ protection and a level playing field for the industry, AVA currently adopts the guidelines and standard established by the international food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission for the use of such claims,” it added.

The intergovernmental commission of more than 180 members falls under the Joint Food Standards Programme, established by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.

Despite requests from industry stakeholders for a country to country equivalence, the AVA has said that a blanket certification will not be issued and it will “accept valid organic certificates issued by organic certification bodies”.

Businesses typically pay a fee for regular inspection and the right to use a particular certification label on goods, after proving that it has met all the listed requirements.

“Of course, these specifics do not mean that something is completely organic.”

– Enrichment trainer Puvanes Balakrishnan, who scans her labels for growth hormones and chemical fertilisers. 

 Local farms can get accredited by overseas bodies. Quan Fa Organic Farm, for instance, is certified by Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand under the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

GreenCircle Eco-Farm did not get accredited – but claims to be an organic farm. “We do not feel the need for any certification because we have no plans to sell our vegetables outside of Singapore,” its website reads.

When approached by Aerinlé for clarification, owner Evelyn Eng said: “We grow our vegetables according to organic standards and we are open for visitors to visit our farm any time to inspect for themselves.

“Hence we do not see any discrepancy in labelling ourselves as organic without formal certification.”

Until a universal certification for organic produce is established, customers should study the labels for standards they value. It is only then that they can pick products right.

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