Food Safety Focus (189th Issue, April 2022) – Article 1
Organic Food and Food Safety
Reported by Mr. Arthur YAU, Scientific Officer,
Risk Communication Section, Centre for Food Safety
With increasing popularity, various types of organic food are available from many local retailers. They range from fresh vegetables, rice, cereal grains, meat and processed food, etc. Consumers’ personal values influence their attitude towards organic food and thus their choice. For example, some choose organic food out of one’s concerns for the environment and animal welfare, while others believe consuming organic food is a way to minimise the intake of synthetic chemicals such as pesticide residues and additives.
Figure 1: Many types of organic food are available in Hong Kong.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations define organic agriculture as a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agroecosystem health, which includes biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It emphasises the use of management practices in preference to the use of off-farm inputs, taking into account the local situation. This is accomplished by using agronomic (e.g. crop rotations), biological (e.g. composting and biological pest control) and mechanical (e.g. tilling) methods, as opposed to using synthetic materials, to fulfil any specific function within the system, where possible.
In order to ensure that requirements of the production management system are being followed closely, inspectors appointed by certification bodies visit farms and production sites to conduct checks and audits. As a result, food sold as "organic" usually bears an organic label from its certification body on its package so that consumers can identify it easily. Checking the organic label on the package helps to ensure that what you purchase is organic, no matter it is locally produced or imported.
Organic Foods: Is It Safer?
The FAO also noted that while organic farming may offer benefits to the environment, animal welfare, consumer preference and income and food security for small farmers, it is not a guarantee of food safety. Organic farming means that certain production management standards are followed throughout production, but it is not a food safety system. Chemical and microbiological contamination cannot be excluded as pesticides extracted from plants can be used in organic food and microbiological contamination from the environment and human, etc. is also possible. The main differences between organic food and conventional food are in the production, processing and handling methods. Organic food needs to meet the same food safety standards as any other food produced with conventional production methods. In general, both organic and conventional farming can produce safe food when proper agricultural practices are used.