There are two types of certification for organic produce and products: ‘certified organic’ and ‘organic in conversion’.
‘Certified organic’ means the farmers or producers of the food or product have undergone an official and industry-recognised — and often costly — process of application, inspection, compliance and authentication that entitles them to use the label.
‘Organic in conversion’ means the farmers or producers are still in the process of getting the organic certification. In the case of agriculture, for example, the produce is being farmed using organic methods but the soils in which they grow have not been completely rehabilitated, a process that takes about three years on average.
Furthermore, there is a difference between products that contain organically certified ingredients but were not necessarily made utilising an organic process, which means they are not ‘100% organic’.
There is a range of certification agencies in South Africa, each with their own specifications and regulations. Among them is the worldwide organisation Ecocert, which has a local branch and is generally regarded as an authoritative body. But the organic industry in South Africa is still very much self-regulated and there are no laws that govern the use of the word ‘organic’ on products. Unscrupulous manufacturers indiscriminately put these labels on their products — and get away with doing it. However, you can protect yourself to a certain extent.
Firstly, we advise that you carefully check labels for the names and logos of legitimate certification organisations such as Ecocert. Because certification is a complex, lengthy and expensive process for the farmer, producer or manufacturer, you can generally trust that he has complied with the necessary regulations to obtain it, and that the organisation is monitoring the use of its name and logos. If you cannot find the name or logo but the product claims to be organic, phone the manufacturer and ask which certifying organisation it uses. The retailer of the product should also be able to provide either information about its supply chain or even organic certification programme documents.
Secondly, especially as far as non-food items are concerned, it is best policy to become educated about the harmful ingredients in products such as shampoos or household cleaners. Many of these ingredients have to be listed on the product label by law and you can thus make an informed decision on whether or not to use it. But many do not have to be provided on the label, so education and awareness are your best weapons. This website supplies a comprehensive list of harmful ingredients that you can peruse here. Also see Check your food labels.
Thankfully, labelling laws in South Africa are becoming better regulated and potentially better enforced with the introduction of the Consumer Protection Act. It has, for example, formulated guidelines about providing information on the use of genetically modified organisms in food products on their labels. Some of these guidelines, however, are regarded as too ambiguous to completely protect the consumer, and the organic industry has not been included in the labelling laws.