Retailers in the UK are increasing their organic food offering all the time, especially as consumers become increasingly concerned about the safety of much of the food they eat. But playing on these fears to advertise and promote organic food is a risky business, as the UK's leading food retailer, Tesco, recently discovered.
The company has published a leaflet entitled 'Organic: your everyday choice' which stated: "Why choose organic? We all care about what we eat, but if you are concerned about the effect food production might have on you and the environment, then organic food is the natural choice for you.
"Kinder to the environment, organic farming seeks to be in harmony with nature by minimising the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and maximising the use of traditional farming methods. Natural control of pests and disease is encouraged, and control of weeds and enrichment of the land is achieved through skilful use of crop rotation and natural composts."
It concluded "... What is organic agriculture? ... It aims to better protect the environment and to build a healthier ecosystem for the future ..."
But the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) was called in to adjudicate after a member of the public complained that these statements were misleading and designed to generate interest in organic food (which is frequently far more expensive than traditional food products) by playing on consumer concerns.
The complainant focused on the statement "if you are concerned about the effect food production might have on you and the environment, then organic food is the natural choice for you" which, they said, misleadingly implied that organic food was safer and healthier than conventional food.
Tesco argued that consumers had a choice as to whether to buy organic food or not, and that it was for shoppers to decide whether organic food was the right choice for them. It added that organic food was the right choice for most readers concerned about the effect food production might have on them and on the environment, including those who were concerned about hydrogenated fats and certain additives that are not allowed in organic foods.
But a study from the University of Hohenheim in Germany, also used by Tesco to justify its statement, clearly states that "no clear conclusions about the quality of organic food in general can be reached using the results of present literature and research results. The risk of contaminating food with pesticides and nitrate can be assumed to be lower in organically rather than in conventionally produced food. However, significant differences between organic and conventional food [cannot] be demonstrated."
The ASA agreed with the complainant that Tesco's pamphlet implied that organic food was safer and healthier than conventional food. It considered that although the evidence submitted showed organic farming might be the right choice for readers who were concerned about the effect of intensive food production on the environment, the retailer had not provided evidence that it was the right choice for readers concerned about the effect intensively farmed food might have on their health. Tesco was told not to repeat the claim unless it could provide further substantial evidence to support it.
Tesco also said in the leaflet that "control of weeds and enrichment of the land is achieved through skillful use of crop rotation and natural composts ..." but this too was challenged by the complainant, who said that other methods such as flame throwers and mechanised hoes were widely used in organic farming. Once again, the ASA agreed.
Tesco claimed that crop rotation was the sole method of weed control for many crops, and that mechanical hoes were a secondary method of weed control and were no different from manual hoes. The ASA said that the claim implied control of weeds and enrichment of the land was achieved by skilful use of crop rotation and natural composts alone; the Basic Standards for Organic Agriculture and Processing, set out by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, encourage the use of natural composts and rotation of non-perennial crops, but also recommend using physical and thermic measures of crop protection such as pheromone traps or thermic weed control.
However, the complaint that Tesco's claim that organic food was kinder to the environment was also misleading was not upheld by the ASA. The University of Hohenheim study also stated that, in comparison with conventional farming, organic farming benefited wildlife conservation and the landscape, caused less nitrate leaching, eliminated the risk that ground water would be contaminated with synthetic pesticides and consumed less artificial energy and produced less carbon dioxide.
While Tesco had not taken the effect of transporting the produce into account, the ASA agreed that it had shown sufficient evidence to prove that the claim was correct.