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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Öko and Bio - Seals on our Grocery

We have all seen the large, green sign atop certain (sometimes overpriced) food products during our grocery shopping, the various labels and claims. But what does it mean? Not only the bio label, but Germany is also full of product test seals; one especially wide spread is the Öko-Test. Does the test really have anything to do with ecology? To answer these questions I have braved German internet webpages to bring you the answers! My – I will be honest here – 20 minutes research, has been quite fruitful (mostly because many websites are available in English) and have enlightened me on the topic.

Let us start then with the difference between “bio” and “öko” labels. The rule (yes the ONE rule), is much simpler then I would have thought. There is one simple rule that guides the way through the jungle of terms and phrases: “Only if the label says ‘Bio‘ or ‘Öko‘ then the package contains organic or eco products since the terms ‘Bio’ and ‘Öko’ are legally protected.

Pardon the strange English of the above sentence, it was taken from the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Production who were nice enough to translate (partially) their site into English.

Here is a complete list, taken directly from their site, of the legally protected seals:

• “bio / eco“ (Bio- / Öko-)
• “organic / ecological“ (biologisch/
• “controlled ecological / organic“
(kontrolliert ökologisch / biologisch)
• „organic / ecological farming“ (biologischer
/ ökologischer Landbau
•“organic-dynamic“ (biologischdynamisch)
• “biological-organic“ (biologischorganisch)

So now we know at least one thing: legally speaking a company can only stamp its products with those seals if they fit European standards. If a company were to use the seals without fulfilling the requirements, it could be sued, and “heftily” fined. This is comforting to a certain point; most companies are probably honest and careful to follow the rules, but as we have seen happen over and over in our capitalistic world, short-cuts and lies do happen.

And, of course, the site also lists a series of terms some companies use to “trick” the consumers into thinking they follow the standards without actually breaching any laws. These terms (and I am certain there are more) are:

• “from controlled farming“ (aus kontrolliertem
• “from state-approved farms“ (von
staatlich anerkannten Bauernhöfen
• “under independent control“ (unter
unabhängiger Kontrolle
• “not treated“ (ungespritzt)
• “without crop protection sprays“
(ohne Spritzmittel)
• “from integrated agriculture“ (aus
integrierter Landwirtschaft
• “from contractual farming“ (aus
• “from alternative animal husbandry“
(aus alternativer Haltung)
• “from environmentally sound farming“
(aus umweltschonendem Anbau)

I am not saying these companies are lying about those labels, but it does mean they are not fulfilling all of the requirements needed to actually be stamped with the “bio” seal.

So there are standards, but what are they? Apart from the EU standards, it is important to note that some countries, or associations, have extra, stricter standards. I will not go on to list all of these extra efforts, but know that they exist. Here is a very broad and general idea of the EU Regulation (EEC) No 2092/91 (the full legal document can be found online): “...at least 95 percent of the ingredients of agricultural origin come from organic farming. The EU Organic Farming Regulation stipulates, among other things, the following rules:
Ban on irradiation of organic food, ban on genetically modified organisms, renouncement of crop protection with synthetic chemicals, renouncement of mineral fertilizers of low solubility, diversified wide crop rotations, land-related, appropriate livestock husbandry and organically produced feeding stuffs for feeding of livestock with no antibiotics or growth promoters added.”

And there you have it, a quite satisfactory description in my book, as anything more complicated I would probably not understand. The 95%, in my opinion, is still too low. It allows for the companies to add “expressly authorized additives” to their products, a list of which you can also find online, unfortunately in German only. The information above, and much more besides, can be found here: www.biosiegel.de/english/homepage

And now I turn to the Öko-Test, a slightly more problematic research as the site is only available in German. For those of you who do not yet know (as I did not two minutest ago), the Öko-Test is in fact a magazine. It researches products or certain types and tests them, publishing their results monthly, with specially themed magazines every once in a while. I do not need to read the website to know that this test is held in high regard by Germans. Products declared winners will proudly announce so with a large white seal on their packaging, often listing the opposite number of years they have won.

I will not go through every stage of the product testing with you, but such information is available on their website, available only in German. And here I paused to go through the website, painfully, to try and find some information to report (my research time now reaches an hour), and came back slightly disappointed. The test, as of course makes sense, changes its guidelines from product to product. It would be useless to test a baby stroller the same way you test a light bulb.

The winners are often products which offer the best value for its price. (now I am back from reading three different tests) Honestly, you need to read the tests in order to make true sense of the seal. The tests cost only 60 cents each, available for downloading, or you can purchase the full magazine. In the full test versions you can find a detailed description of the test, their opinions and recommendations, as well as all the products tested, the criteria, and their results.

It is incredibly interesting, and after another half an hour of reading (I am so proud of myself), I am seriously considering subscribing to the magazine. The only downside is that I have seen very little which really links the test to actual environment protection. It seems a better guideline to save money, than to help protect the planet; still, there might very well be something which got lost in translation. This is not the easiest website to navigate, as many German sites seem to be, but here is the link nevertheless; I wish you luck: www.oekotest.de/index.html.

originally published in Currents Aug/Sep 2009

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