U.S., European Organic Standards Declared Equivalent

Some view agreement on organic standards as a positive step for producers, while others question whether it will cause more problems.

Basket Organic Produce

In 2012, agriculture officials in Europe and the United States announced an agreement that declared the two sets of standards equivalent, meaning most organic farmers in the two areas will only have to be certified once to do business on both sides of the Atlantic.


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Maine has some 30 organic-certified maple syrup producers, huddled mainly on the state’s border with Quebec. Maple syrup is a popular organic sweetener in the European Union. It would stand to reason, then, that Maine would export a lot of organic maple syrup to the EU. But that hasn’t been the case, says Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Unity, Maine.

“It hasn’t been so easy to ship overseas because of the standards difference,” Libby says.

For years, differing organic standards in the United States and the European Union have discouraged organic maple syrup exports. While many organic certification standards are similar between the two regions, U.S. organic farmers have been required to obtain separate certification to sell in the EU and vice versa. Many maple farms are family-run operations, and owners have neither the time nor the resources to go through the process to get dual certification, Libby says.

But early in 2012, agriculture officials in Europe and the United States announced an agreement that declared the two sets of standards equivalent, meaning most organic farmers in the two areas will only have to be certified once to do business on both sides of the Atlantic. The equivalency agreement is being hailed by many important organic stakeholders as an opportunity to expand the organic marketplace, but not everyone is convinced.

At least one respected organic industry watchdog, the Cornucopia Institute, Cornucopia, Wisconsin, has expressed concerns that the move could weaken farming standards in both regions.

The agreement most likely will be a game-changer, says Barbara Haumann, a senior science writer with the Organic Trade Association, based in Brattleboro, Vermont. The market for organic food in the EU’s 27 member states is as robust as it is in the United States, with recent annual sales of about $26 billion in the EU and $26.7 billion in America. The U.S. organic market has created jobs at four times the national average, but that hasn’t always translated into international growth because of countries’ differing standards, argue some organic stakeholders. Aligning the organic standards will encourage more organic farmers to export, Haumann says.

“There’s less they have to do,” says Haumann. “It’ll also be cheaper.”

Agriculture officials have agreed to disagree on the differences between the two sets of standards in an effort to encourage free trade. Rather than hold up an agreement because of sticking points, they have carved out some exceptions to the reciprocal agreement with each side maintaining its own turf. For example, organic meat suppliers in the EU are allowed to treat their animals with antibiotics in some situations. This remains against the rules for organic meat raised in the United States and for any meat sold as organic in the United States.

On the other hand, U.S. pear and fruit growers have long been allowed to treat their fruits with antibiotics to control fire blight, but they will not be able to sell any antibiotic-treated fruit as organic in the EU.

The agreement has been publicly praised by large organic food stakeholders, including Matt’s Organics, Amy’s Kitchen, and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Little concern has been expressed by U.S. producers that European organic produce could flood the market, especially since California organic growers are already leaders in the global organic market.

Some small-scale organic stakeholders, like Libby, see promise in the agreement, as well. Libby says his state’s organic growers largely sell their produce in New England and what they grow wouldn’t export well overseas. The agreement may even have the potential to free up specialty organic ingredients that small-scale growers and producers need, says Nicole Dehne, a certifier with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, Richmond, Vermont.

“For example, our vegetable farmers will have more access to organic seeds, as the European Union has a strong organic seed industry,” Dehne says.

Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minnesota, believes there’s potential for the agreement to improve standards. For example, requirements for living conditions for organic poultry in the EU are far more defined than in the United States, with stricter metrics for space, access to outdoors, and hens per house.

The EU requires 43 square feet per laying hens and broilers; U.S. standards require just 2 square feet.

“Our standards for organic animal agriculture are very aspirational,” says Baden-Mayer.

It’s possible the stricter EU standards on animal welfare could encourage better standards in America or vice-versa, but that might be wishful thinking, says Mark Kastel, executive director of the Cornucopia Institute. Comparing the two standards is like comparing apples and oranges, he believes.

“We actually call it organic alchemy,” Kastel says. “It’s not equivalent, but they waved their wand and all the sudden it’s equivalent.”

He says the reciprocity agreement caught many organic advocates off-guard, with little public discussion before the change was announced.

When the Cornucopia Institute learned of the agreement, Kastel and others created a two-page document filled with specific questions about the differences between the two sets of standards, on everything from bedding to permissible feed. Many of those questions have yet to be answered, he says, and these gray areas could make for a watering-down of organic standards in both regions.

“It really calls into question the integrity of the organic label,” Kastel says.

The reciprocity agreement took effect June 1, which means that many organic growers and processors are even now pouring over the fine print to see if their products translate across the Atlantic.


Organic Trade Association

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

The Cornucopia Institute

Matt’s Organics

Amy’s Kitchen

California Certified Organic Farmers

Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont

Organic Consumers Association