Products covered by EU organics rules

European Union (EU) organic farming rules cover agricultural products, including aquaculture and yeast. They encompass every stage of the production process, from seeds to the final processed food. This means that there are specific provisions covering a large variety of products, such as

  • seeds and propagating material such as cuttings, rhizome etc. from which plants or crops are grown
  • living products or products which do not need further processing
  • feed
  • products with multiple ingredients or processed agricultural products for use as food

EU regulations on organic production exclude products from fishing and hunting of wild animals but include harvest of wild plants when certain natural habitat conditions are respected. There are specific rules for wine and aquaculture.

Organic production rules

Producing organically means respecting the rules on organic farming. These rules are designed to promote environment protection, maintain the biodiversity of Europe and build consumer trust in organic products. These regulations govern all areas of organic production and are based on a number of key principles, such as

  • prohibition of the use of GMOs
  • forbidding the use of ionising radiation
  • limiting the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides
  • prohibiting the use of hormones and restrict the use of antibiotics and only when necessary for animal health

This means that organic producers need to adopt different approaches to maintaining soil fertility and animal and plant health including

  • crop rotation
  • cultivation of nitrogen fixing plants and other green manure crops to restore the fertility of the soil
  • prohibition of use of mineral nitrogen fertilisers
  • to reduce the impact of weeds and pests, organic farmers choose resistant varieties and breeds and techniques encouraging natural pest control
  • encourage the natural immunological defence of animals 
  • in order to maintain animal health, organic producers need to prevent overstocking

Rules on livestock

Livestock farmers must also fulfil specific conditions if they wish to market their products as organic. These rules include respect for animal welfare, feeding the animals in accordance with their nutritional needs and are designed to protect the animals health and environment. These rules also help to build public trust as they ensure that organically farmed animals are kept separate from non-organic. Examples of rules which apply to livestock farmers include

Abiding by organic principles

  • non-organically raised animals may be not brought onto holdings unless for breeding purposes and then only  comply with specific rules
  • farmers have to provide 100% organic feed to their animals in order to market their products as organic
  • the feed should primarily be obtained from the farm where the animals are kept or from farms in the same region
  • cloning animals and or transferring embryos is strictly forbidden
  • growth promoters and synthetic amino-acids are prohibited
  • suckling mammals must be fed with natural, preferably maternal, milk
  • natural methods of reproduction must be used, artificial insemination is however allowed
  • non-organic feed materials from plant origin, feed materials from animal and mineral origin, feed additives, certain products used in animal nutrition and processing aids can only be used if they have been specifically authorised for use in organic production

Animal welfare

  • personnel keeping animals must possess the necessary basic knowledge and skills as regards the health and the welfare needs of the animals
  • particular attention should be paid to housing conditions, husbandry practices and stocking densities
  • the number of livestock must be limited to minimising overgrazing, erosion, or pollution caused by animals or by the spreading of their manure
  • animals should have, whenever possible, access to open air or grazing areas
  • tethering or isolating livestock is prohibited aside from individual animals for a limited period of time and only for welfare, safety or veterinary reasons
  • hormones or similar substances are not permitted, unless as a form of veterinary therapeutic treatment for an individual animal
  • when the animals are ill, allopathic veterinary medicinal products including antibiotics may be used where necessary and under strict conditions. This is only allowed when the use of phytotherapeutic, homeopathic and other products is inappropriate
  • the use of immunological veterinary medicines is permitted

Rules for the food chain

The rules cover all stages of production, preparation and distribution (from primary production to storage, processing, transport, distribution and supply to the final consumer). This means that all organic products in the EU follow strict rules from the farm to the plate.

The specific provisions for processing organic food and feed include

  • the separation of processed organic products in time and space from non-organic ones
  • a minimum organic content of 95% of organic agricultural ingredients and strict conditions for the remaining 5%
  • clear rules on labelling and on which products can and cannot use the organic logo
  • specific limits to the substances which can be added to food and feed and a limited list of approved additives and processing aids to be used in organic production

Permitted substances in organic production

One of the objectives in organic production is to reduce the use of external inputs. Any substance used in organic agriculture to fight pests or plant diseases must be pre-approved by the European Commission.

Additionally, specific principles guide the approval of external inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, and food additives so that only substances and compounds listed as approved in specific legislation can be used in organic productions.

Processed food shall be produced mainly from agricultural ingredients only (added water and cooking salt are not taken into account). They may also contain

  • preparations of micro-organisms and enzymes, mineral trace elements additives, processing aids and flavourings, vitamins, as well as amino acids and other micronutrients added to foodstuffs for specific nutritional purposes can be used but only when authorised under organic rules
  • substances and techniques which reconstitute properties that are lost in processing or storage that correct any negligence in the processing or that otherwise may be misleading on the true nature or the products shall not be used
  • non-organic agricultural ingredients can only be used if they are authorised within the annexes to the legislation or have been provisionally authorised by an EU country

And above all, any substance listed for use in organic agriculture must be compliant with horizontal EU rules and then be thoroughly assessed and approved by the European Commission for use in organics.

Rules on wine, aquaculture and hydroponics

Wine

Specific rules are set for organic wine-making, including a technical definition of organic wine which is consistent with the organic objectives and principles.

Organic wine has to be made with organic grapes and yeast, however, there are a number of other restrictions that also apply. These include

  • a prohibition on the use of sorbic acid and desulphurisation
  • the level of sulphites in organic wine must be lower than their conventional equivalent (depending on the residual sugar content)

Aquaculture

There are also specific rules governing the organic aquaculture sector. These follow the same broad principles as the regulations for all other organic products but have been adapted to fit the sector. Key features of the aquaculture regulation include

  • strict maximum stocking densities
  • water quality requirements  
  • rules that specify that biodiversity should be respected, and which do not allow the use of induced spawning by artificial hormones
  • handling minimised to avoid stress and physical damage
  • the provision that organic feeds should be used, supplemented by fish feeds derived from sustainably managed fisheries
  • special provisions are made for bivalve mollusc production and for seaweed

Hydroponics and Aquaponics

EU rules do not allow for plants grown hydroponically to be marketed as organic. This is because organic production is only possible when plants are grown naturally in soil. This regulation also applies to plants that are grown in an aquaponics system.

However, fish which are grown in an aquaponics system can be sold as organic if the relevant legislation for organic aquaculture is followed.

Organic seed database

All plants or crops marketed as organic need to be grown from plant propagating materials (seeds, rhizomes etc.) which also conform to organic standards.

However, it is sometimes difficult for farmers to find appropriate sources of these seeds. Therefore, EU countries maintain 'organic seed databases' to better connect farmers with suppliers.