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Organic. As (bio)logically sound as we think? A look at the labyrinth of labels

More and more people are opting to buy products labelled as organic. The question is, why are there so many of these labels? And what are the differences between them?

Healthy living starts with a healthy diet. It’s rather gratifying to see that more and more retailers are offering products that sound like they’re “organic“ or “natural” (more information here), or at least look the part. On closer inspection, however, the issue of what constitutes organic food and drink quickly becomes more complicated. Here’s our attempt at an overview.

What types of label are out there?

While some labels cover a whole range of products (such as the Bio Suisse “Bud” or Demeter), others only apply to specific product categories (such as Delinat for wine, Fidelio for meat or Soyana for plant-based products). Other labels (RegioFair, Gran Alpin, etc.) are only used at a regional level.

Who issues organic labels?

Some countries issue their own organic labels: France, Germany and Denmark each have their own label, for example. The EU also awards organic labels as a supranational organisation. Switzerland does not have its own national organic label. Labelling in Switzerland is instead handled by private bodies, i.e. by associations and federations (such as IP-Suisse or Bio Suisse), by work groups or by companies that have their own range of organic products (e.g. Coop’s Naturaplan range). These private labels can appear on packaging alongside other organic labels through co-branding, e.g. alongside the Bio Suisse Bud logo.

Do different labels mean different things?

Therein lies the rub – the labels that are available in Switzerland are issued based on varying guidelines, which themselves differ in terms of how stringent they are.  To complicate matters further, Lidl, Migros & co. have several different versions of their home-brand labels, each of which corresponds to a different set of certification standards. Below is our summary of these standards and the labels associated with them.

EU regulations on organic products

The EU organic label, a sequence of white stars on a green background, can be found on an increasing number of products in a range of shops in Switzerland – from Migros and Coop to Aldi and Lidl. Here’s what it means:

  • No use of synthetic chemical pesticides
  • Limited use of mineral fertilisers
  • The product may contain no more than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients
  • At least 95% of the product’s ingredients must have been produced organically, while up to 5% may be grown by conventional means
  • Animal feed contains no antibiotics or animal meal
  • No growth-promoting substances used in animal husbandry
  • Food irradiation is prohibited

However, the EU organic label has few to no requirements in areas such as irrigation, biodiversity, climate protection or social issues. There are likewise no guidelines related to packaging, fair trade or sustainability during processing. As such, the EU label scores lower than other standards used for organic products.

The following distributors’ labels comply with the EU regulations on organic food
Aldi: Nature Active Bio  
Spar: Natur*Pur
(for imported products)
Denner: Ener Bio
Migros: Migros Bio
(for imported or processed goods. Additional requirements such as a ban on transportation by air, e.g.) 
Lidl: Bio Organic
(with the EU organic logo) for imported products

Integrated Production regulations on organic products

The well-known red ladybird logo. It was created by IP Suisse, and identifies domestic Swiss products made using “Integrated Production”. These products do not yet meet the standards required for them to be classed as organic; Mineral fertilisers and certain herbicides may be used during production, while fodder cereals can be cultivated through intensive farming. Even so, the regulations concerning IP are already stricter than those used in conventional agriculture:

  • The use of chemical synthetic fertilisers and pesticides is limited or banned
  • Growth regulators, chemical fungicides and insecticides are not allowed
  • No genetically modified crops or cattle may be farmed
  • Measures must be taken to preserve biodiversity and protect resources
  • Products may only be produced and processed in Switzerland and the Principality of Liechtenstein
The following distributors’ labels comply with the EU regulations on organic food
Aldi: Nature Suisse
Migros: Terra Suisse
(with additional regulations regarding social issues, packaging, etc.)

Bio Suisse guidelines on organic products

The well-known white bud on a green background: This logo was created by Bio Suisse, the umbrella organisation for organic farmers in Switzerland. The requirements for displaying the Bio Suisse Bud are more stringent than those stipulated by Swiss law, and are generally considered to be among the most exacting in the world. These include the following:

  • The entire farm must be run organically 
  • All ingredients in a product bearing the bud logo must meet Bio Suisse standards (with a few exceptions, such as if an ingredient is not of bud quality but is “only” available in organic form)
  • No genetic engineering whatsoever 
  • No artificial flavours, colours or vitamins 
  • Minimal processing (i.e. no repeated pasteurisation in milk production)
  • Crop rotation, as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers, is permitted under strict conditions
  • Animals must have ample space and time outside in summer and winter, while feeding must be site- and species-appropriate (pasture-based)
  • Social provisions regarding working conditions, guidelines on fair trade relations
  • Provisions on packaging materials
  • Inclusion of a strategy for sustainability and climate protection: Transportation by air is prohibited; greenhouses may only be heated to a limited extent. Only crops that either don’t grow in Switzerland or do so in insufficient quantities may be imported
  • No land-clearing of primeval forest to grow non-native ingredients
  • Weeds may not be sprayed, not even with biological agents (removal by hand only) 
  • Targeted promoting of biodiversity through ecological compensation areas and other measures 
  • Strict, product-specific guidelines on processing methods and additives
  • Provisions on packaging material

The Bio Suisse association produces two labels: The Bio Bud label for products containing more than 10% imported ingredients, and the Bio Suisse Bud with Swiss Cross for products made using ingredients of which 90% were grown domestically.

The following distributors’ labels comply with Bio Suisse regulations
Coop: Naturaplan
(used for both domestically produced goods and most imports)
Migros: Migros Bio Schweiz
(with the Swiss cross) for non-processed food and drink made in Switzerland.
Lidl: Bio Organic
(with the Swiss cross)
Aldi: Nature Suisse Bio
Manor: Bio Natur Plus

What about labels like Claro and Max Havelaar?

Max Havelaar is first and foremost a Fairtrade label; the focus here is on ensuring that products are traded fairly, in accordance with the guidelines produced by Fairtrade International. This involves paying a minimum price and a Fairtrade premium, among other things. Different provisions apply to production, and the requirements regarding environmental protection are less stringent than for other labels.

Claro is another label which promotes the fair trade of goods in line with Fairtrade International guidelines. These products are sourced from around 200 specifically supported smallholder farming cooperatives in the global South, and around 75% of them also comply with the EU regulations on organic farming.

Demeter: what’s the difference between organic and biodynamic?

Products bearing the Demeter label comply not only with Bio Suisse regulations, but also with the conditions of biodynamic farming.

  • Crops are planted and harvested according to the biodynamic calendar, which takes into account the lunar cycle and other considerations. Composts called biodynamic preparations, which are made from all natural substances, are used to ensure the growth and quality of crops
  • Producers must practise animal husbandry; they provide manure for agriculture and receive feed produced by the farm
  • Cows are not de-horned
  • The use of additives is reduced to a bare minimum
  • Chemical processing, irradiation or microwave treatment is an absolute no-no when it comes to processing
  • Processing is kept to a minimum, with even fewer steps allowed (for example, Demeter milk may not be homogenised or subjected to ultra-heat treatment)
  • As is the case with Bio Suisse, the Demeter restriction on air transportation may be lifted in exceptional circumstances

We hope our article manages to answer at least a few of your questions. What do you think about the hodgepodge of labels in Switzerland? We look forward to your feedback.

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