Organic junk food - organic panic?

Where to start?

It is said that many people were drawn to organic food because of the BSE scare – and yet the leading producer of organic meat in this country still fails to admit an outbreak of BSE, and MAFF do not confirm individual cases. The organic movement has violently set its face against the use of genetically modified organisms and yet there is unlikely to be any bread yeast in this country that does not owe its origins to genetic modification – and you can buy bread labelled organic.

We often hear the righteous demand that our organic standards should not be diluted by new EU standards– and yet there is the increasing impression given that a dilution in standards can be BOUGHT from those very same righteous people. Is it a coincidence that an application to change the standards to allow the use of human sewage on organic farms followed a generous donation by Wessex Water to the Soil Association?

Is it also a coincidence that Sainsbury's financial support of the Soil Association was followed by an application to allow the use of nitrites in bacon, extending its shelf life but adding toxicity, and now appearing on Sainsbury's shelves?

Who asked the Soil Association to change the standards to allow ethylene gas to be used to ripen bananas?

How confident can you be when organic fruit imported into the UK under Soil Association certification was found by MAFF to be grossly contaminated with organophosphorus compounds? Are you going bananas at this indictment of an organisation out of control?

The gaffe was finally blown on the Soil Association by an article in the Sunday Times on the 4th October, 1998. This chronicled an extraordinary set of coincidences: donations by Sainsbury's to the Soil Association; a deal between Sainsbury's and the farm leased by the Chair of the Soil Association to deliver organic bacon treated with nitrites to its stores for the first time; this farm initiating the change in the standards; and a scientist employed by Sainsbury's putting the bulk of the Association’s case for the change.

Quite rightly, a number of other producers of organic bacon see this as wrong, a sell out to the supermarkets and as a breach of trust and care. And the story did not die there because it was picked up by The Scotsman on the 14th October during a visit by Prince Charles to open a new organic agriculture centre. The article was entitled “Cancer links revealed in ‘healthy’ organic produce”. A subheading said: “Over 30 additives permitted in food perceived by consumers as chemical free”.

There was also an anonymous letter in the Big Issue entitled “Organic Panic” which lamented that you could no longer trust Soil Association certified food being organic anymore. Just to remind you that Sainsbury's response to all this is to say that there is a five percent leeway in the standards – only 95% has to be organic!

The nitrites story came as a shock - even to me. I can detail much of the facts in the first paragraph because I was, for a short period, a Council member of the Soil Association (and thus know the people involved) before the Council – and not the membership – kicked me off.

To say lack of accountability and vested interest only retreads the path I took with the Charity Commission and then subsequently with my MP. Words like the arrogance of the untouchable; nepotism; and self-congratulatory; also feature amongst those having independence of thought, a few principles, and some idea of the truth.

You can make your own mind up. At the end of October, Prince Charles will be at the Soil Associations Organic Food Awards where you will struggle to find categories that don’t involve processed foodstuffs (I still fondly remember the Soil Association's gleeful announcement of the first certified cook-chill meal). Call me old fashioned but I eat basic organic food six days a week, grown by myself, so that I can have the odd treat of processed food on the seventh. I recognise this junk food to be rubbish and do not expect it to be necessarily healthy or organic. I accept the risk! What I don’t accept is an organic sector having been seduced along the track of increasing processing of basic ingredients, leading to more additives and a mimicry of conventional food retailing. Unlike the blessed Lynda Brown (Independent on Sunday Magazine, 18th October) I don’t crave or want organic junk food!

Mark Fisher, 20 October 1998