Why Organic food in Hong Kong doesn’t mean anything

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This article has been updated on 28/7/15 with updated knowledge.

Hong Kong currently does not have any piece of regulation specifically for organic food. Yes, even though food can be labelled and sold as Organic in Hong Kong, the FEHD has not made any hard and fast rule saying what actually counts as organic. We do have some general guidelines, although these too are vague, and easy to get around. Bearing in mind these guidelines are constantly prefaced by words such as “usually” and “generally”, as we do not have any rules.

– Avoiding the use of chemical pesticide and fertilizers
– Avoiding growth hormones, or antibiotics
– No application of Genetically Modified and Ionising Radiation

This looks good so far, and the centre for food safety then goes on to say:

Food products sold as “organic” should have been produced and prepared according to organic standards and certified by a certification body or authority of their country of origin.

Hong Kong thus relies on certificates by country of origin for food – this is normal, and as things should work. Food can only be certified organic at it’s origin. But what about the locally produced crop that calls itself “organic”? In our discussions to come to the truth several years ago, we discussed with an anonymous auditor of a multinational company to advise us on how they audit companies marketing foods as organic. The situation may be different now, but at the time, we were told very confidently that no food produced in Hong Kong can ever be organic. The soil itself is just too filled with chemicals.

There are 3 properties of organic food vs conventional food which we would like to inform all our customers about, in agreement with the HK FEHD:

A. Avoiding chemical fertilizers will reduce risk of pesticide residues but then pesticide residues at harmful levels are not permitted in Hong Kong even for non-organic foods! Any food that has harmful levels of pesticides is illegal to sell in Hong Kong whether or not organic. 

B. Nutritional contents of Organic and Conventional produce is essentially same.

C. Improperly treated manure if used as fertilizer and avoiding fungicides in organic farming could theoretically increase risks of pathogens and mycotoxins respectively in organic produce – but there is insufficient evidence… (personally we feel nobody has interest in paying for doing research that could prove that expensive organic produce could be harmful!)

Whereas it may be argued that organic farming helps eco-system and environment, there are no proven benefits to human health (unless comparing with produce that in any case is illegal to sell in Hong Kong); there could possibly be some harm due to possible but unproven increase in pathogens and mycotoxins.

Current regulations on sale of organic produce largely rely on ‘not misleading labeling’ principle, without specific and exhaustive regulation on what exactly is organic as per law. This is why as a result in Hong Kong, we only have guidelines, not “laws”. It could be because we are too small a nation to afford the rigorous research needed to analyse each organic claim made by various sellers, and issue regulations for locally produced crop.

While the government has great guidelines put forth for not misleading customers, as a result, we also see some very vague guidelines put forth by the HK Government. Here is one such direct quote extract:

Products with organic label (e.g. “certified by [certification body]”) and/or organic logo of the certification bodies or authorities should have been produced in an organic manner and certified by the respective certification body. In general, these products contain at least 95% organic ingredients.

Note: Organic food doesn’t need to be entirely organic! What about the remaining 5%?… 

However, Hong Kong does have very good food labelling laws and restrictions. These restrictions usually mean that bad quality food gets caught out as such by consumers. Hong Kong’s organic food market is also very small, at present just 2% of all food sales. Legislation would only make things harder for real organic foods to enter. That said, in one consumer survey in Hong Kong, 40% of respondents felt confused by doubtful organic claims on the packaging. “From the labelling survey, approximately 45% sampled vegetables, 84% sampled fresh fruits, 39% sampled cereals, and 73% of the sampled dried fruits and nuts were self-claimed organic without any certification or were labeled with various kinds of promotional statements or labels related to organic farming or production”

Overall… we can see that although the government’s intentions are good, and recommendations are along the lines of letting the consumer make the decision themselves… here, lack of labelling is definitely not in the consumer’s favour. Confusion, mislabelling, and not having accreditation are amongst the easiest places for companies to sell regular food as organic. Other problems also include the guideline that not 100% of the item needs to be organic to be marked as such. This is truly spectacular, and we hope that there are stricter guidelines in place.

To prevent unscrupulous elements in trade passing off conventional produce as organic and/or promoting it to be beneficial to health, regulations on Sale of organic produce needs to tightened in Hong Kong to match with other jurisdictions such as COMMISSION REGULATION No 271/2010 in EU, Organic Food Production Act in USA, or similar laws in other countries. 

Farm sizes are so small in Hong Kong that it is difficult to avoid cross contamination by air, soil and water from neighboring farms who may not be doing organic farming. One also needs to tackle the problem of soil itself which may be contaminated with previously used chemicals.

Spices in any case are not grown in Hong Kong. Most spices are forest produce growing wildly. Origins are usually remote areas in developing countries of Africa and Asia. Farmers have no money to afford fertilizers, nor to go through expensive organic certification process. 

We prefer to concentrate on giving superior flavor to customers. Our money is well spent on air-lifting ingredients from origins rather than on certifications and logos. Several of our products are wildly grown in forests, most are naturally grown – chemical fertilizers will spoil their taste. Organic certification will further increase their cost without any proven health benefits to consumers. We prefer lower marketing budget. 

At the moment, nearly none of Regency’s Spices fall under “Organic” as per USFDA or EU guidelines, but they can ALL be counted as organic in Hong Kong if we pay a small price at origin when farming for the certificate. We don’t make this false claim. We instead spend our money on flying our spices in by air for freshness, vacuum sealing, and sourcing the best tasting qualities and varieties.

Further update:

What many consumers may be surprised to hear is that in Hong Kong there are now companies offering organic certification, one such is the HK ORC. That said, we think the organic seals could be more friendly to the consumer. There are separate seals for produce that is maximum 95% organic, products in between 70-95% organic, and products from farms in process of organic conversion. There is no certification for 100% organic yet. We feel that consumers will easily be misled seeing these types of seals, because it’s very hard to tell whether the product is actually organic or not, and what is the benefit of the organic portion (as none are 100% organic). As mentioned above, 100% organic isn’t possible in HK, simply because the farming industry isn’t developed enough. While one farm may be sticking to good practices, a neighbouring farm won’t, and there will be mixing of pesticide residues and fertilisers in the soil.

Furthermore, while some of these seals follow IFOAM standards (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), these companies also offer the same 70%, 70-95% etc… certificates under “NON-IFOAM” regulation. We were also not sure what is meant by Non-IFOAM, and when we tried to find it, these standards (at least today), are not available for public to view on their website. All we know is that NON-IFOAM are clearly weaker than the international IFOAM standards for what counts as organic… which is very puzzling as surely organic is a clear cut case of “yes / no”.

We strongly recommend that our consumers are more aware of what organic seals are on the products they purchase, and feel that the HK government can do more to educate the public on the differences between organic vs natural products, as well as their respective benefits and weaknesses.

References

 

HK Food and Environmental Hygiene Department: know more about organic food
HK Food and Environmental Hygiene Department: Organic Certification and Labelling
USDA Foreign Agricultural service: Study Does Not Recommend Legislative Control on Organic Foods
HK ORC Cert Organic seals
IFOAM


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