Stifling the grass roots?

16 July, 2010
With organic certification prohibitively expensive for some smaller bakers and the Soil Association apparently unwilling to budge on costs, Helen Gregory asks is the Association holding organic bread and bakery back?
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It goes against the grain, but some small bakers are effectively being priced out of getting organic certification.

To carry the venerated Soil Association stamp, companies must fork out 548 plus VAT each year and a percentage of turnover if sales are more than 180,000 a year but it's just not viable, according to the small Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite, Yorkshire. The company uses organic ingredients and broadcasts this to customers but reckons it is simply too time-consuming and expensive to get certification. "We've barely got time to bake bread, let alone fill in all the forms," owner Dan McTiernan explains.

He has been berated by a Soil Association-accredited baker who accuses McTiernan of undermining the concept. But this same baker admits his only annual holiday was taken up by organic certification bureaucracy. McTiernan says: "I believe in certification, as it's important to safeguard the sector. I also recognise that we could charge more if we had certification, but the extra money we made would probably go to the Soil Association. It costs 75 to register each new recipe, which just stifles creativity."

Back in 2007, the Soil Association revealed to BB it was targeting a shake-up of the organic certification system, so that hundreds of small bakery companies missing out on organic certification could gain access to the scheme. It planned to press Defra and the EU for graded levels of certification, with commercial director Jim Twine announcing: "We would like to see a system developed that is more appropriate to people's size and scale. This would potentially bring down the cost and include a lot more people within the certification system."

Entry-level option

Andrew Whitley, co-founder of the Real Bread Campaign, reckons the Soil Association provides an element of campaigning unlike other certification bodies it's a promotional cost and isn't a bad deal but has been calling for an entry-level option. "You could take more in a certification fee from people selling more, like taxation."

However, three years on and the UK's biggest certification body has quietly parked the idea. "We have always tried, and will continue to try to be more accessible to smaller artisan producers as we appreciate cost is an issue," explains a spokeswoman. "We have no plans to introduce an entry-level certification, and we believe we have an obligation to consumers not to dilute our standards or certification procedures on the basis of cost."

It insists it is committed to helping the bakery sector during "this difficult period" and it could certainly do with some help. Although organic sales have seen double-digit growth for almost every year since records began in 1993, sales of organic bread and bakery items dropped by 39.8% during 2009 the worst-performing food sector, according to the association's Organic Market Report. However, comparative figures for the year to February 2010 showed the rate of decline in organic bread had been cut to 9.4%.

So what's the problem? It points to difficult trading conditions along with technical challenges in "making a bread that meets modern expectations of shelf-life while still meeting organic criteria". "We need to do more to educate consumers about the benefits of organic food, particularly in areas where the benefits might not be so obvious, such as bakery," she adds.

Maybe so, but perhaps education isn't the only reason for the dip. Whitley, at the Real Bread Campaign, believes it is the larger firms pulling out of the sector when there was an apparent drop in demand and supermarkets misreading the signs, rather than the reluctance of small bakers to get certified, that has caused the sector to stall. "The bread some of the big companies produced was similar to the standard offer there wasn't a significant point of difference other than the word 'organic'," he says.

And there is criticism in some quarters that the Soil Association is effectively a trade union that growers and manufacturers feel obliged to join. With a modest 74 bakers licensed to display the stamp a figure that has remained fairly steady in the last few years surely there is scope for more to join up?

Perhaps organic bakers could be encouraged to join by relaxing the Soil Association's extremely stringent standards. Unbowed, the Soil Association spokeswoman adds: "It would be difficult to see how we could make certification more accessible without reducing its rigour. I don't feel that would benefit the consumer and that cost is the only barrier to bakeries choosing organic certification."

So where can we expect to see growth if more bakers don't jump on the organic bandwagon? Whitley believes organic bread growth will come from grass-roots bakers growth will be slower than in the late 1990s, but more sustainable, he says. But for some small bakers, their contribution won't be counted if they're not certified, while others might not even bother moving into organic products because the category's sales have dipped.

Different accreditation

However, let's not forget that there are other approved certification bodies in the UK: Organic Farmers & Growers, the Biodynamic Agricultural Associa-tion and the Organic Food Fede-ration, as well as bodies working in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The Organic Food Federation charges between 375 and 450 and has 25 certified bakers on its books. Director Julian Wade says the cost of ingredients has risen considerably and will have put some people off going organic, and he adds that some are less inclined to get certification because of the cost.

But he reckons certification is good value for a "thorough process". Says Wade: "I don't think it matters to consumers who has certified a product, as long as it's organic. We want to keep people certified, not make life tougher for them."

One of its recent converts is Stevie B's bakery in Crediton, Devon, which had been selling organic loaves for years, but realised it couldn't tell customers about it, says partner Lynda Bundey. It has just finished the lengthy process of certifying all 72 organic loaves with the Federation, and although Bundey reckons it was "a bit of a silly point we never pretended to be certified and just told the truth", she acknowledges that, as the business grew, it could have become an issue. But she adds: "I don't think it matters to people that we are certified; no one has remarked on it since, and they haven't mentioned what kind of certification we've got. It's the bread that's important."


A week is a long time in organics

The ailing organic sector received a boost at the start of July, when the Organic Trade Board (OTB) had an application for 1m match-funding from the EU approved for the UK's first generic awareness-raising promotional campaign. The cash will be spent over the next three years by the organisation, which was set up to better represent the interests of organic businesses and brands although no individual brands will feature in the campaign.
When the OTB formed two years ago, British Baker reported that the organics sector was beginning to fall foul of image problems and accusations of a lack of direction, especially set against the rapid emergence of the popularity of Fairtrade (Sunset for Organics, 13 June, 2008). This was borne out when the Soil Association announced gloomy sales for last year, with bakery hardest hit.
In the same week as the OTB's good news, Patrick Holden, who had been director oaf the Soil Association since 1995, stepped down, announcing it was "the right time to hand over to a successor to take the work of the association forward". It will now look ahead to Organic Fortnight 2010 (3-17 September), which it hopes will "challenge the perception of elitism", by positioning organic as accessible, affordable and an everyday choice. See: http://bit.ly/aLY90o
Meanwhile, organic manufacturers will have to find a space on their packaging to squeeze in yet another logo. From this month (1 July), all pre-packaged organic goods have to carry the new Euro-leaf logo. However, before you rush all your existing packaging off to landfill, a two-year transition period has been issued to allow businesses to catch up with the change.
Next to the new EU organic logo, a code number of the control body is displayed, as well as the place where the agricultural raw materials were farmed. It will be obligatory for all pre-packaged organic products from the 27 Member States to use the logo, which is meant to enhance consumer protection and promote organic farming. Operators will still be able to use national/private logos in addition to the compulsory EU logo, and it will be optional for imported products and non pre-packaged organic food.





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