“Certified Organic” Food in Singapore: What Does It Mean?
As demand for healthier food products has increased over the years, organic food is becoming more and more common in Singapore’s supermarkets, shops and even wet markets.
However, is it really true that organic food is healthier than non-organic food? What does “organic” really mean?
What Does “Organic Food” Mean?
The Singapore Food Agency (SFA) does not have a definition of organic foods.
However, organic food and drink generally refers to products that are made in compliance with organic standards in Singapore, meaning that they are:
- Grown naturally without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides; and
- Not modified or processed using synthetic products and additives.
Labelling Food as “Organic” in Singapore
According to section 9B(5) of the Food Regulations, food can only be labelled as “organic” if it has been certified as “organic” under an inspection and certification system that:
- Complies with section 6.3 of the Codex Guidelines for the Production, Processing, Labelling and Marketing of Organically Produced Foods, GL 32-1999 (Codex Guidelines); or
- That substantially complies with section 6.3 of the Codex Guidelines and is acceptable to the SFA as being a suitable system for the certification of organic food.
In other words, food products can only be labelled as “organic” in Singapore if they have passed the inspection and attained the certification by a certifying body which has implemented the minimal measures stated in the Codex Guidelines.
Therefore, although many think that food has to be grown in a certain way in order to be labelled “organic”, it actually also depends on the quality of the standards on which the food is inspected and certified to be “organic” in the first place.
The Codex Guidelines are guidelines established by the standard-setting body of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation to provide an internationally agreed approach to the production, labelling and marketing of organically produced foods.
According to section 6.3 of the Codex Guidelines, which refers to Annex 3 of the same Guidelines, an inspection and certification system that will allow food to be certified as “organic” must implement measures to (for example):
- Verify that the food product conforms to internationally agreed practices across the whole of the food chain;
- Ensure the production of organic food takes place in an area that is separate from non-organic food;
- Ensure that livestock can be easily identified for the purposes of tracking livestock at all times. For example, through tagging individual animals;
- Ensure that all livestock within the same production unit are reared in accordance with the rules laid down in the Codex Guidelines;
- Ensure that unfinished food products are adequately labelled and are transported in a manner that prevents its contamination;
- Ensure that a full physical inspection of the production units (including these units’ land and production, and storage facilities) is conducted at least once a year;
- Gain access to all written and/or documentary records and accounts from the food producer that is attaining the certification; and
- Gain access to storage and production premises and parcels of land belonging to the food producer that is attaining the certification.
What are the Requirements to Obtain the Requisite “Organic” Certification From Certifying Bodies?
Presently, the absence of certifying bodies in Singapore means that Singapore farmers who wish to label and sell food products as “organic” must obtain certification from a certifying body overseas.
Some examples of such overseas certifying bodies include:
- Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand;
- Australian Certified Organic; and
- Quality Assurance International
However, this may change in the future. Since 2015, there have been preliminary talks about a new standard for organic procedure and a local organic certification in Singapore.
While the requirements to pass the inspection and obtain the “organic” certification will vary across different certifying bodies, some of the common requirements for organic food products include:
- Land used for farming must not have prohibited substances (chemical fertilisers and synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides) applied to it for at least 3 years before the harvest of an organic crop;
- The prohibition of genetic engineering or genetically modified organisms;
- Only approved fertilisers from plant and animal sources are to be used, such as compost or manure; and
- Synthetic pesticides cannot be used to prevent damage caused by pests, diseases and weeds. Only the following can be used instead:
- The protection of natural enemies (i.e. insects that naturally feed on pests or weeds)
- Appropriate choices of crop varieties, crop rotation, cultivation techniques and thermal processes
Upon passing the inspection and certification process, the certifying body will issue a valid organic certification for the food product.
What Happens If the Food has been Improperly Labelled as “Organic”?
False labelling offence under the Sale of Food Act
Generally, checks and investigations on food products are conducted by SFA.
If any food products are found to be falsely labelled as organic, this could constitute a contravention of section 17 of the Sale of Food Act which, prohibits persons from selling food that has been labelled in a manner that is:
- Deceptive; or
- Likely to create wrong impressions on the food’s value, quality or safety.
First-time offenders may have to pay a fine up to $5,000. Repeat offenders will incur a fine up to $10,000 and/or an imprisonment term of up to 3 months.
While most people think that only the food producer will be liable under this section, even the food retailer or the food importer may be caught under this section.
For example, a food retailer who falsely labels food as organic in the store for promotional purposes may be found liable.
Liability under consumer protection laws
Mislabelled organic foods may also attract liability under consumer protection laws.
In Singapore, consumers have information rights as to having the information displayed on the packing to be accurate. Therefore, the information displayed should not make false claims about the food product.
Consumers who have suffered damage from mislabelled food products may choose to pursue legal claims in contract or tort against the food manufacturer or the food retailer, depending on the situation in which the claim arises.
For example, if a supermarket has a contract with a food manufacturer to obtain supplies of organic food products and subsequently finds out that these products were mislabelled, the supermarket may pursue a claim against the manufacturer for a potential breach of contract.
Legal claims in tort are available to those who have suffered damage from the mislabelled food products in the absence of a contract.
For example, a consumer who has bought mislabelled food from a supermarket may choose to sue the food manufacturer for negligently supplying such mislabelled food products to the supermarket.
Misconceptions about Organic Food
Here are some clarifications as to the common misconceptions about organic food:
“Organic food can be grown in only soil. Therefore, food grown through other mediums (e.g. hydroponics) cannot be organic.”
This misconception exists because some argue that true organic farming requires nurturing, natural soil.
However, foods grown through other methods can be organic so long as they pass the inspection and certification process by certifying bodies which themselves meet certain international standards (see above).
Unless the certifying body has the requirement that food must be grown in soil, foods grown in other mediums can also be labelled as organic upon meeting the certifying body’s requirements.
As Singapore currently has no local certifying body, whether or not there is a requirement that organic food must only be grown in soil will vary depending on the specific overseas certifying body and the overseas regime.
For example, in the United States, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), has explicitly stated that hydroponic and aquaponic crops (which are grown in water), but not aeroponic crops (which are grown suspended in mid-air), can still carry organic labels.
The NOSB is a Federal Advisory Board which makes recommendations to the the United States Secretary of Agriculture, on organic production practice standards and materials.
Is food labelled as “natural” organic?
“Natural” food does not necessarily mean that it is organic. Natural food generally refers to food items that are minimally processed or not altered chemically, i.e. that they are derived from plants and animals.
Common examples of natural food includes those which do not add any artificial flavours, colours or preservatives.
Foods labelled as “natural” do not have to comply with the strict standards of food production and labelling that exist for organic food.
Is organic food pesticide-free?
Organic food does not necessarily mean that it is pesticide-free.
To be labelled as organic, it is typically required that any pesticides used are to be derived from natural sources and not synthetically manufactured. These are commonly known as “organic pesticides”.
Further, while the production of organic foods usually does not include the use of synthetic pesticides, a 2014 study by the United States Department of Agriculture have found synthetic pesticide residues on organic food samples.
This has been attributed to cross-contamination in harvesting bins or inadvertent pesticide drift (unintentional diffusion of pesticides) when sprayed.
Now that you are more aware of the meaning of “organic”, you can make more informed choices when purchasing and consuming different types of food.
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