ORGANIC chicken and eggs approved by the country's largest certification body contain a synthetic growth promoter that has been banned by other certifiers and is being phased out in Europe and the US.
And far from being completely natural, there are as many as 36 synthetic substances which are found in organic products sold in Australia.
As the Australian organics industry nudges annual sales of $1 billion, pressure is on growers to produce faster maturing - and bigger - yields to meet consumer demand. An agreement last year by the nation's eight independent organic certifiers to support a new domestic standard has disintegrated as the process of amending the standard exposes disagreements between the largest certifier, Australian Certified Organic, and the industry lobby group, the Organic Federation of Australia.
The Biological Farmers Association, which owns Australian Certified Organic, wants to reintroduce the use of synthetic amino acid isolates which were not allowed in the standards agreement.
The amino acids, such as DL-methionine, promote the growth of livestock and can shave a week off the time it takes for a chicken to go from pen to plate. The amino acids are necessary for a range of issues including adequate feathering and to minimise birds pecking each other. Methionine occurs naturally in some livestock feeds, but producers argue that the levels are not high enough to ensure the welfare of birds.
The Australian export standard bans the use of synthetic methionine. It is also prohibited by the European Union, and the US will phase it out by 2012.
Andrew Monk, the head of standards for the Biological Farmers Association and a member of the Standards Australia committee, said ignorance in the industry was blowing the methionine issue out of proportion.
He was sympathetic to consumer concerns about synthetic substances in organic foods, but in many cases industry had little choice. ''There's a limited list, perhaps three dozen, that aren't natural because the industry has taken the view through the years that these things are essentially needed and there's no alternatives that would bring the same outcomes,'' he said.
But representatives of other certifiers say allowing the use of methionine, even temporarily, would give some producers an unfair advantage and add to confusion about standards among consumers.
Marg Will, who runs the Organic Food Chain in Queensland, said it was the original intention of industry and government for the export standard to apply domestically, but ''somewhere along the way, government dropped the ball''.
''We now live in confusion and the end result is that both the consumer and organic producer suffer,'' she said.
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