ASA Adjudication on Organic Trade Board
Organic Trade Board
94 White Lion Street
26 September 2012
Number of complaints:
Summary of Council decision:
Two issues were investigated, both were Not upheld.
A poster promoting organic food showed two apples with a speech bubble next to each. The first speech bubble read "I'm telling you, babes, I've gotta have my treatments" and the other "Not my style hun, I'm organic". Text underneath the image stated "They may look the same, but one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food".
The complainant challenged whether the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food":
1. was misleading and could be substantiated, because they understood that organic crops were heavily treated with pesticides; and
2. was denigrating to non-organic crop production.
CAP Code (Edition 12)
The Organic Trade Board (OTB) explained that they were an organic industry trade association which encompassed over 140 organic companies. They said the ad was part of a three-year campaign, part-funded by the EU, to raise awareness of the benefits of organic food and farming.
1. The OTB did not consider that the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food" was misleading. They provided a response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which outlined EU regulations concerning the use of pesticides in organic farming. This information showed that a limited number of pesticides were allowed in organic farming, and that their use was only permissible in certain circumstances. In particular, the EU Regulations stated that "… the prevention of damage caused by pests, diseases and weeds shall rely primarily on the protection by natural enemies, the choice of species and varieties, crop rotation, cultivation techniques and thermal processes". The OTB stated that, whereas over 300 pesticides were routinely used in non-organic farming, organic certification bodies in the UK often restricted the number of pesticides allowable even further than the EU Regulations; for example, organic farmers certified by the Soil Association were only able to use five pesticides, and even then that use was subject to restrictions.
Both Defra and the OTB pointed out that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website contained a claim that "Eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives". The OTB further stated that they had consulted with the CAP Copy Advice team before using the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food" in their marketing, and had received guidance that the claim was likely to be acceptable.
The OTB submitted a response from the Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK), an independent body which worked on pesticide-related issues. This stated that in their experience organic produce available to the general public in the UK had lower levels of pesticide residues compared with non-organic produce. Both PAN UK and the OTB drew attention to findings made by the Defra Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (the PRiF) which, together with its predecessor the Pesticides Residues Committee (PRC), had conducted quarterly surveys of foods in the UK food supply to test for pesticide residues. They said the reports published by the PRiF and PRC detected pesticide residues in around 30-40% of food samples, but the number of organic samples which tested positive for pesticide residues was consistently very small. PAN UK pointed out that the number of organic samples taken for these reports was in proportion with the amount of organic produce consumed in the UK; they therefore considered that it was accurate to claim that organic produce was an effective way to reduce exposure to and intake of pesticides via residues in food.
2. The OTB did not consider that the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food" was denigrating to non-organic crop production. They believed they had followed CAP guidance which stated that advertisers should not rubbish competitors or suggest unfair, dishonest or duplicitous practices. They stressed that they had intended their ad to positively promote organic food and highlight objective points of difference.
The OTB also stated that as part of their EU funding for this campaign they had had to submit the claims to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which was part of Defra. They provided a copy of the approval they had received and said it would not have been given if the ad had been viewed as denigrating non-organic farming.
1. Not upheld
The ASA noted that the number of pesticides licensed for use in organic farming was limited at a European level, and furthermore that those pesticides could only be used in certain circumstances. We understood that organic farmers in the UK had to be registered with a certification body, and that in some cases that body imposed further restrictions on when, where and how farmers were allowed to use pesticides.
We noted that the number of organic samples tested by the PRC and PRiF was comparatively low, and that the reports stated that they could not be assumed to represent the UK food supply as a whole because samples containing residues might be over-represented. We understood that the PRiF and PRC monitoring programmes sought to test foods which they had reason to believe might contain pesticide residues, and therefore considered the results might overstate the amount of pesticide residues in the UK food supply, because of the sampling method. The reports published by the PRiF and PRC consistently showed a much lower incidence of detectable levels of pesticide residue in the organic foods sampled, compared to foods not labelled as organic. We therefore considered that these reports indicated that the amount of pesticide residues present was lower in organic than in non-organic foods.
We consulted the FSA and understood from them that instances of Maximum Residue Level (MRL) exceedance for pesticides were less frequent in foods labelled as organic. We noted the latest report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which took into account data on pesticide levels in food gathered by an EU-Coordinated Programme as well as national programmes, such as that of the PRiF in the UK. We understood that the EFSA had found that lower numbers of organic samples exceeded the legal MRL for pesticides when compared with other production methods.
We acknowledged that the OTB had followed guidance from the CAP Copy Advice team when preparing their ad, and that Defra endorsed their response. We noted that EU legislation restricted the number of pesticides which could be used in organic farming, and that reports by the PRiF and PRC indicated that pesticide residues were found less commonly in organic foods in the UK. We also understood that the EFSA had reported that, on an EU-wide level, organic food exceeded the MRL for pesticides less often than food grown by other production methods. We therefore considered that the OTB had demonstrated that pesticides were used less frequently in organic farming and were present less commonly in organic foods than in foods produced by other methods. For that reason, we concluded that the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food" was not misleading.
On that point, we investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation) but did not find it in breach.
2. Not upheld
We acknowledged that the OTB said they had wanted to promote organic farming positively rather than denigrate non-organic crop production. We noted that the claim "one way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to eat more organic food" did not directly reference other methods of food production and only drew a comparison in so far as to present organic food in a positive light. We considered that it was not unreasonable for an advertiser to seek to promote their product, or group of products, in this way. In addition, as detailed in point 1, we were satisfied that the OTB had provided adequate evidence to substantiate their claim that eating more organic food was one way to reduce exposure to pesticides. Because we did not consider that the OTB had actively disparaged non-organic farming, and because the statement had been substantiated, we concluded that the claim was not denigrating to non-organic crop production.
On that point, we investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 3.42 (Imitation and denigration) but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.