In Britain the food faddists are having a field day. Sales of organic produce are rocketing, partly due to food safety scares I described in March. Supermarkets report an 18% increase in 12 months. Vegetarianism is up 7% since 1998.

The claims made by European protagonists of organically-produced food seem to have got out of hand. Four of five claims recently have been publicly slapped down by Britain's government-backed advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

Implications for U.S. Producers This could have implications for the U.S. pork producer. While the areas of vegetarianism and the preference for organic meat are not as prominent in America - at least compared to Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Holland - they could develop.

The complaints come from a well-respected body, the U.K.'s National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), affiliated to the European Federation of Animal Health, who felt that enough was enough. Greater scrutiny by an impartial body was needed.

The challenge highlighted five statements by the Soil Association in the U.K., a prominent backer of organically-produced food. The challenged statements in the leaflet "Five Reasons to Eat Organic" were:

* "You can taste the difference." - This claim was made from a British consumer poll indicating 43% expressed a preference for organic food because it tasted better. They concluded that, in the absence of more rigorous tests, such as blind taste tests, the claim was unsubstantiated. The Soil Association was asked not to repeat the claim unless they had convincing substantiation.

* "It's healthy." - As the Soil Association sent no clinical evidence to show that a diet consisting of organic products was more healthy than the same diet consisting of non-organic food, the ASA concluded that the advertisers had not substantiated the implication and asked them to remove the claim.

* "It's better for the environment." - The Soil Association claimed organic farmers had to comply with the principle providing for "the maintenance or development of valuable existing landscape features and adequate habitats for the production of wildlife, with particular regard to endangered species." The ASA accepted that organic farming set out to protect the environment but noted that the advertisers had sent no evidence as to how this objective was achieved. Again, they were asked to remove the claim.

* "Organic means healthy, happy animals." - The ASA noted that organic farmers were expected to "ensure the ethical treatment of animals" and to adopt "animal husbandry techniques which meet the animals' psychological, behavioral and health needs." Again, the ASA noted that, while these standards were laudable, the advertisers had provided no evidence to show that these were achieved in practice. The advertisers were asked to remove this claim.

* "It's GMO free." - This claim was upheld. This decision should be of interest to U.S. producers in view of tough anti-GMO legislation now appearing in Europe. GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are prohibited in organic farming and food processing in many European countries. However, only a few GMO crops are grown in the U.K., for trial purposes only. Therefore, the GMO-free claim was upheld. They felt readers would infer the claim related to the rules for growing organic crops and concluded the presence of genetic pollution would not devalue claims that organic produce was GMO free.

Getting out of Hand? "The claims the ASA rejected have been at the core of the promotion of organic farming for many years and have undoubtedly played a major part in the growing commercial success of organic produce," says NOAH.

"Raising these matters was not intended as an attack on organic farming itself," NOAH claims, "but we are concerned the proponents of organic farming tend to promote themselves by attacking the vast proportion (97% in Britain) who farm conventionally.

Could It Happen in the U.S.? I welcome this "shot-across-the-bow" because the media have been diligent in exploiting the organic story in Europe. The U.S. media will likely do the same, if they haven't already.

My wife, a talented cook, provides our vegetarian guests with vegetarian dishes as a matter of hostess courtesy. But, when they also ask: "Is it organic?" our patience runs thin!

So it is time to call a halt to unfounded, unproven claims on both organic and vegetarian produce. Our customers can eat what they please, but to sway their minds on unfounded opinion dressed up as fact can only be wrong. Be warned and keep alert!

For more information about Europe's food safety scare, see "European Consumers Call The Shots," March 15, 2000, page 32.