Organic produce

The future for organic food suppliers remained uncertain regardless of which contingency the Soil Association pursued, it warned

The Soil Association is considering setting up an Irish operation as part of its plans to mitigate the effects of a potential no-deal Brexit.

The organic certification body was still “investigating options” about launching a scheme in Ireland, it said this week. The move was one of a number of proposals designed to counteract the potentially “devastating” effects crashing out of the EU would have on organic food certification.

It follows concerns, first aired by the government last August, that UK organic food suppliers could be effectively banned from exporting to the EU for at least nine months in the event of a no-deal outcome.

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Setting up an Irish operation could in theory give the Soil Association and its licensees access to the EU market. However, it stressed UK certified companies would not be given an automatic registration, and Soil Association’s certification subsidiary would still need European Commission approval to export, “something that is hampered by the current uncertainty around the manner of our exit from the EU”, it warned.

“Our exploration of becoming a registered certification body in Ireland was part of our wider work to look for options that would support Soil Association Certification licensees to continue to trade as easily as possible with the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit,” the body said.

“Due to an expected recognition of our UK accreditation by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service to operate as a certification body, Ireland appeared the best option if we were to set up within the EU,” it added.

“This required both Irish government recognition of our operating accreditation and EU approval. Continuing uncertainty around the final form of Brexit has prevented progress, but we will continue to look at all the options available for our licensees after Brexit.”

While Ireland was one option, the body’s current main focuses were on an application to the EC for approved third country status and for a 1235 scope extension, which certifies that farmers and processors are upholding the EU organic regulation within a specified country.

But given the current Brexit impasse, the future for organic food suppliers remained uncertain regardless of which option the body pursued, warned Soil Association Certification CEO Martin Sawyer. Failure to reach an agreement with the EC meant the Soil Association would not be able to certify in the EU, he said.

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“Our hope is that the EC starts accepting applications before 29 March. The question is, how long will it take and can it be done before 29 March? If there are delays from the end of March there will be a significant disruption to trade.”

Booming sales

It comes as the organic sector shrugged off last year’s challenging weather conditions and more than a 20% rise in organic feed costs, to deliver its seventh consecutive year of sales growth in 2018.

Total value sales for organic food and drink rose by 5.3% to £2.33 billion, according to the Soil Association’s annual Organic Market Report, published this week. Organic food now accounted for 1.5% of the overall food and drink market in the UK and was on track to be worth £2.5 billion by next year.

Home delivery of organic food and drink, through online and box schemes, was the fastest growing route to market in 2018, with sales growth of 14.2%. Supermarket sales rose by 3.3%, with sales in independents up 6.2%, while sales into foodservice also rose, by 8%.

Sales of organic fresh produce rose by 3.6%, with canned and packaged goods up 3.6%. Dairy rose 1.9%, while beers, wine and spirits were up 21% and chilled foods and deli foods rose 26.8%.

“Organic is in the right place to capitalise on many of the consumer trends we’re currently seeing across retail,” said Soil Association Certification business development director Clare McDermott.

“We know that more shoppers are looking to purchase sustainable products to reduce their impact on the planet, and this has combined with an increasing value being placed on transparency and traceability in the food system, more local and online shopping, and increasing interest in healthy options – where organic is often seen as a signpost to healthy choice.”