Trade in organic products in France is now valued at almost $2 billion dollars and imports from non-EU countries continue to increase, according to a USDA GAIN report.
The strongest demand is for fresh fruits & vegetables, dairy products, soy-based products, processed vegetable products, muesli, beverages and food complements.
"From 1994-2004, the organic farming sector in France demonstrated consistent growth," wrote Laurent Journo in the Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) study.
"During this period, the number of organic farms increased 300 per cent and crops under organic cultivation increased 500 per cent.
"Currently, though, the growth in organic farms has stabilised in terms of both total number of farms and conversion of land into organic farming."
Indeed, recent data published by Agence Bio (the French Organic Federation) shows that approximately 61,000 hectares were converted to organic. In 2004 overall, organic planted area dropped by 3 per cent compared to 2003, falling from 550,000 hectares to 540,000 hectares.
A great deal of activity, however, has taken place within the organic import sector. Third countries - any non-EU country - are not allowed entry to France without authorisation from the French Ministry of Agriculture, and he number of requests from non-EU countries has doubled in six years.
Morocco, Madagascar, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Tunisia applied for fifty percent of these import permits. Some third countries, including Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Israel, New Zealand and Switzerland, have bilateral agreements with France that allow importation without specific authorisation.
These statistics suggest that more and more French consumers are buying into the supposed health and environmental benefits of organic food, whether the products come from home or abroad. According to statistics published by the Agence Bio, 44 per cent of French consumers have eaten an organic product in the past year (against 37 per cent in 2003).
Distributors of organic products in France are therefore optimistic about the possibilities in this market. Shop owners believe that dry products, frozen foods and prepared meals have good market potential.
"Organic biscuits, introduced as a new product in 2004, are showing strong sales," said the report. "Food complements, a new sector of in-store products, are also rising in consumption and many stores have begun integrating these products into their inventory."
But dairy products, one of the best selling products in the organic sector are, however, starting to show signs of saturation. Organic meat and delicatessen products have also failed to produce robust sales, while organic animal forage products are experiencing strong demand.
The low-down on organic food
The labelling and advertising of organic products is subject to detailed rules governed by the percentage of organic ingredients in the products.
(1) Over 95 per cent organic: These products can mention 'organic production' as the farming method and may display the terms customary to each Member State in the European Union.
(2) Over 70 per cent organic: Processed products with at least 70 per cent of organically grown agricultural ingredients cannot use 'organic farming' in their trade name. However, the sentence "X per cent of the agricultural ingredients were grown in compliance with organic farming methods" must appear within the same visual field as the trade name but in a separate part.
(3)Less than 70 per cent organic: Processed products containing less than 70 percent of organic agricultural ingredients may not use the description "organic" on the label.(4) Products Under Conversion to Organic Farming: Controlled products whose raw materials are from farms converting to organic farming for at least one year before the harvest.
How to obtain Organic Status?
Farmers must notify the department division of agriculture and forestry (DDAF) of their activity before they are allowed to use 'organic' in reference to their production method (on labels, advertising, and invoices).
All products seeking 'organic product' approval must be inspected and certified by an officially approved organisation in France before being marketed. Presently, six private organizations, Ecocert, Qualite France, Ulase, Agrocert, Certipaq and Aclave, are officially approved to inspect organic products and deliver "agriculture biologique" (organic farming) certification.
Agricultural products and foodstuffs from organic farming must travel in sealed packaging and/or containers to prevent content substitution during transportation. Packaging must be labelled.