PRODUCERS and branded beef exporters are stepping up the pressure for an enforced domestic standard guaranteeing food labelled organic is certified, saying the lack of such regulation is now costing millions in lost market opportunity.
As demand for organic food across the board surges on the back of pandemic-fueled increased consumer focus on health and knowing how food is produced, organic meat marketers say opportunities are being lost.
Australia is misaligned with global standards and the last developed nation in the world to not have a mandatory domestic standard for the use of the word organic, according to peak industry body Australian Organic Limited.
While the Federal Government is moving on the issue, with an industry advisory group set up in December to gather recommendations for a revamped organic standard, cattle industry people want to ensure the wheels turn quickly.
Paul da Silva, marketing director at Queensland-based Arcadian Organic & Natural Meat Co, said this move needs to be the final step, not the start of the process.
Organic food suppliers had been calling for regulation for ten years, he said.
"Organic food is now a large industry, by revenue and by participation, and that means the number of consumers it touches and the merchants and producers involved is significant," Mr da Silva said.
Indeed, AOL analysis indicates the segment is enjoying 15pc compound annual growth and is worth $2.6 billion a year.
"The lack of appropriate regulation is now impacting very big revenues, not to mention the risk to consumers," Mr da Silva said.
He explained importing countries can not provide Australian exporters an accreditation because there is no equivalent mandatory standard in place in Australia, which means exporters must go through a timely and expensive certification process in every single market they attempt to sell into.
"Inevitably, by the time we've gone through that process, the opportunity is gone," he said.
"It's exacerbated by border closures at the moment because certification typically involves hosting overseas auditors who physically check the supply chain, so we are now in a position where it's impossible to gain market access in some cases."
It's difficult to put a number on how much food in Australia is labelled organic without certification but beef operators say it is happening across many product categories.
"The temptation is high for marketers to use 'organic' - it's a magic word to consumers, especially when overlaid with the pandemic, which is making consumers think even harder about the origin of their food and how it's produced," Mr da Silva said.
"It's not good enough for someone to say 'I'm sure I'd pass if I was audited'. Consumers deserve better and so do the producers who invest in the organic system."
Tasmanian cattleman Rex Williams said domestic regulation was the only way the industry could weed out fake organic products currently reaching the shelves and misleading consumers.
"Without domestic regulation in place, producers can make false claims with almost impunity," he said.
AOL chief executive officer Niki Ford explains at present, the only way an Australian consumer can be certain a product is truly organic is to look for a certification mark.
There are six logos but the Australian Certified Organic Bud is by far the most recognisable and producers want it to be made the national mark.
Ms Ford said Australia was one of the first countries, outside the European Union, to have organic certification framework in place - it was set up in the 1990s - but it has never been enforced by law for those making organic claims.
"Over the past 30 years, a grey area has developed and marketing has taken over use of the word organic," she said.
"Australia has the largest certified organic landmass in the world. We could produce more organic food but consumer confidence and cost base for exporters is holding the industry back."
Mr Williams' mixed enterprise Kelty Farm produces premium Angus beef, pork and apples at Woodbridge, south of Hobart, and has been classified organic for more than 20 years.
His products carry the bud logo.
Maintaining that accreditation involves regular audits where everything from farm soil, to management practices are closely examined.
"Growers like myself rely on the integrity of the certification process to make that guarantee to customers," he said.
"I have great faith in the future of the Australian organic industry. If we can secure our domestic regulation, producers like myself can continue to position ourselves to attract premium prices from a growing market of consumers eager on purchasing from trusted organic farmers."
ALSO IN BEEF: