What is organic food?

Find out about organic food, organic certification, how organic food is different from conventional food, and about nutritional claims and organic food.

What is organic food?

Organic food is produced in an organic production system.  Organic production systems avoid or exclude the use of most synthetic or human-made fertilisers and pesticides.

  • Use of some veterinary medicines, including antibiotics, and food additives or processing aids is restricted.
  • Use of genetic modification and irradiation is prohibited.

Producing organic plants

Organic agriculture relies on crop rotations, manures and other organic wastes (compost) to maintain soil productivity, and to supply plant nutrients. It emphasises a combination of physical or biological methods to control insects, weeds and other pests.  Use of some soil conditioners – products that are used to improve the soil's structure – is restricted.

Organic farming of animals

In organic animal husbandry, animals are fed with organic feeds and graze on pasture maintained to organic standards.  Animal health is managed by selecting hardy stock, providing animals with good living conditions, feed and exercise, and managing stocking densities.  Use of antibiotics and other veterinary medicines is restricted. If veterinary medicines are used, in some cases the animals can no longer be considered organic.

Organic certification

Organic food producers and manufacturers may choose to have their production processes certified organic. This assures consumers that the food they are buying has been produced in accordance with a recognised organic production system.  Organic certification can substantiate organic claims under New Zealand’s consumer protection legislation.

Organic certification means that the producer has complied with a set of standards overseen by an independent third party organic certifying organisation. In New Zealand, BioGro and AsureQuality are the largest organic certification organisations. Other organic certification bodies include Organic Farm New Zealand and Te Waka Kai Ora. The New Zealand Biodynamic Association certifies products to the Demeter biodynamic standard which is closely related to organics.

Organic certification standards are not food safety standards. Organic food must comply with the same food safety, labelling, and composition standards that apply to all food for sale in New Zealand.

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How is organic food different from conventional food?

The difference between organic and conventional food is in the way the food is grown, handled and processed. There is no recognised scientific test to prove that a product is organic.

Nutritional claims and food safety

There is no conclusive evidence that organic food is more or less safe or nutritious than conventionally produced foods, but there are some things you need to be aware of with organic bread.

Iodine and folic acid in organic bread

Organic bread is exempt from fortification with iodine, and may not contain folic acid.  People who eat organic bread may wish to discuss their nutritional needs with their doctor or midwife.

In New Zealand, bread must be made with salt fortified with iodine. Fortification with iodine reduces iodine deficiency disorders. Organic bread is exempt from this requirement.

Adding folic acid to bread is voluntary in New Zealand, but recommended by MPI. Folic acid fortification aims to increase folic acid intake in women aged between 16 and 44 years, reducing the number of pregnancies affected by neural tube defects. Organic producers may choose to not fortify their products with folic acid. 


Nutrient levels can be affected by variables such as ripeness, plant variety, distance to market, storage, exposure to light, and how the food is processed. It is recommended that people eat at least 3 servings of vegetables and 2 servings of fruit a day, whether the vegetables and fruit are organically or conventionally grown.  Some organic fruits, vegetables and dairy products may contain concentrations of specific nutrients at higher or lower levels than conventional foods at harvest or collection.

Chemical residues

The use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, and veterinary medicines is strictly regulated in New Zealand. Any residues present in food due to the use of these agricultural compounds are at levels that present notional zero risk to consumers. The term ‘notional zero risk’ is used to describe the risk associated with consuming levels of substances below the acceptable daily intake (ADI), which is the level at which a substance can be consumed every day for a whole lifetime without noticeable effect.

The restrictions placed on synthetic inputs in organic production systems mean it is likely organic produce will have lower concentrations of residues of synthetic agricultural compounds than conventional produce.

Agricultural compounds permitted for use in certified organic systems under certain conditions are subject to the same risk management requirements as those used in conventional systems.


Organic farmers that use manures as fertilisers need to ensure that risk from microorganism contamination is managed. Composting is effective in reducing the levels of harmful bacteria such as 'E. coli 0157' in manures, provided the temperature in the compost heap is maintained sufficiently high for sufficiently long enough.

Who to contact

If you have questions about organic food, email info@mpi.govt.nz.

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