Organic labeling is increasingly commonplace, but do you know what it actually means when it comes to food?
What differentiates organic produce from other food on the market, especially in Hong Kong?
What Organic Means
The organic designation typically refers to foods grown and processed without chemical toxins, artificial ingredients, chemical preservatives or ionizing radiation.
As consumers, we’re now so far removed from the cultivation of our food that an organic certification can be very helpful in determining whether we’re buying food that has been ecologically produced and is free from potentially harmful substances.
Organic labels or seals on food packaging help identify that a product has met the organic standards set by either a government body or an independent certifying organization.
Organic Agriculture in Hong Kong
Different countries have different definitions and requirements for the term organic, and not every country has official regulations enforced by the government—including Hong Kong.
The city’s Consumer Council, in fact, found in a 2016 study that 12 out of 75 so-called organic vegetable samples contained pesticide residue and heavy metals.
“Organic is very much looked at as a marketing term. There’s a lot of mistrust around it.” - Sonalie Figueiras
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of mistrust around organic food in Hong Kong, says Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Ekowarehouse, a global trade platform for certified organic products.
“Technically, you can write on your label that your product is organic with no proof, because there is no government regulation, and also because Hong Kong has very poor truth in advertising laws,” Sonalie, also founder of eco-wellness website Green Queen, explains.
Organic Certification Efforts in Hong Kong
Despite no official regulations in the city, the nonprofit Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre Certification Ltd, HKORC-Cert, has created its own certification system that is accredited by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.
There are now more than 100 farms in Hong Kong that meet HKORC-Cert standards.
You can purchase locally grown organic produce at these farms, as well as farmers’ markets, specialty stores, and through organic food delivery services.
International Organic Certifications
With local organic food still very limited, you can also look for imported produce with international certifications.
The most common and recognized labels in Hong Kong include USDA Organic and EU organic, which reflect the internationally recognized standards of the U.S. and European Commission, respectively.
You may also come across food grown or produced in Australia—a country where, like Hong Kong, there are no official organic regulations.
Organic Australian farms and businesses opt for independent certification, from organizations such as Australian Certified Organic (ACO) or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia (NASAA).
What About Organic Food from China?
“There are Chinese farms that are certified according to EU Organic and USDA Organic standards by reputable certifying agencies like ECOCERT. And those are absolutely fine,” explains Figueiras.
“There are parts of China where the soil is dead and the water is dirty, but there are also parts of China that are pristine and lovely.”
How to Be Sure You’re Buying Organic
Some farmers who use organic methods choose not to pursue certification, as the process can be expensive and complicated. At the end of the day, purchasing from uncertified organic businesses is based on trust.
If you want to be certain that a grower or producer has followed organic standards, remember to shop only with reputable retailers and look for products that have recognized organic certifications.
Having said that, you shouldn’t feel you have to blindly accept what is written on packaging either. Do your own research if you come across an organic label that you’ve never heard of, or follow up with the certifying agency.
“I recommend that you ask to see all the organic certificates and that you verify them with the certifying agency,” Figueiras says. “ECOCERT will confirm to you, if you write to them.”
When dealing with fresh produce without packaging, especially from local farms, you can ask the seller to show you their organic certifications.
Armed with this knowledge of how organic certification works in Hong Kong, you don’t have to feel misled by marketing claims anymore! You can confidently make food-purchasing decisions that are right for you.