Sustainability on the menu: Organic foods in catering
Government has declared a commitment to increasing the amounts of organic products used in the catering industry. What opportunities and challenges does this open up for actors in the sector? And what can we learn from “Organic World Champion” Denmark? We talked with Thomas Voss and Rainer Roehl.
Six million people eat someplace away from home every day.1 That makes the catering industry an important lever for promoting sustainable food policies and encouraging organic farming. There are already lots of consulting options to support large kitchen operations in going organic. Now the latest regulatory decisions are also advancing the catering industry’s shift to organics.
A turning point for organic products in catering
The German government’s policy on food and nutrition faces the ambitious challenge of increasing the country’s farming to 30 percent organic by 2030. To do that, it will also be essential to increase demand for organic products. One potential source of demand that has been mined only lightly to date is the institutional catering sector. Currently the level of organic products used in the catering industry in Germany comes to only 1.3 percent.2 In spite of all the potential, going organic poses challenges for many commercial kitchens in practice. The higher cost of organic foods, the complexity of procuring adequate quantities, and the additional expense of mandatory organic monitoring are viewed as the biggest obstacles. But while support from the political side used to be scant, that seems to be changing. The government’s latest decisions signal that attitudes have shifted.
A political tailwind
Early in October 2023 the new Organic Foods in Catering Regulation went into force, which simplifies the certification process and advertising for organic foods by establishing three levels of labels: gold for 90 to 100 percent organic, silver for 50 to 89 percent, and bronze for 20 to 49 percent. The new regulation’s goal is to make the situation clearer, simpler and more honest. Labelling for organic foods on the menu is intended to raise awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for food and its means of production, and also to boost regional sales markets and consolidate demand on a lasting basis.3
Additionally, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has laid a foundation for further support in its recently presented Organic Strategy 2030, intended to make it easier for firms in the catering industry to start using organic foods. Strengthening organic catering, especially in childcare centres, hospitals, company cafeterias, and senior residences, is one of the key provisions on the list. Institutions can apply for financial support for both consulting and employee training under the German government’s new directive that is intended to aid catering companies in getting advice on organic products.4 The assistance will cover up to 80 percent of the cost of a consultant. For childcare centres and schools with their own kitchens, the coverage can rise to as much as 90 percent. The support is capped at EUR 35,000. Additionally, Organic Strategy 2030 promises assistance with the cost of getting organic certification in the first two years.5
The challenge in public contract law
The industry’s early response to this political backing has been positive: “For one thing, simplifying organic certification under the new organic catering regulation will certainly help. And then I also expect a virtuous circle owing to greater demand from catering, which will encourage farmers to convert to organic farming, since there will be increasing numbers of reliable buyers,” explains Thomas Voss, Commercial Director at the LWL-Kliniken Münster und Lengerich medical facilities. His clinic’s kitchens have been using organic foods since 2004 – for 950 lunches a day – and he hopes to steadily increase the current organic component of 20 percent. But he finds that public contracting law poses challenges for procuring organic products: “We’d rather buy organic products from our region, preferably including regional producers or production cooperatives. But unfortunately, thus far a regional connection is not a permissible criterion for awarding a public contract.” For animal products, on the other hand, he can draw on Article 20a of Germany’s Basic Law, which grants constitutional protection to animal well-being. That gives him some legal leeway in defining contract terms. “For instance, it’s allowed us to work partly or wholly with regional production cooperatives for things like turkey and chicken meat or fresh dairy products.” Voss looks to successful approaches in Denmark for reconfirmation of his belief that working closely with producers is the right way to go organic.
Denmark, an “organic world champion”
Denmark counts as an organic pioneer in institutional catering. It now has more than 3,500 certified-organic businesses that use at least 30 percent organic products. In fact, the share of organic products at public canteens and cafeterias in Copenhagen has risen all the way to 90 percent.6 Rainer Roehl, founder and managing director of the a’verdis consulting firm, knows the secret for success: “Changes in public contracting rules for food procurement, a focus on developing kitchens and kitchen teams to cook with quality-oriented fresh ingredients, and a cross-institutional vision of a new, natural, sustainable culinary culture have made a major contribution towards organic products’ success in the Danish catering industry.” The effect is further assisted by the country’s simplified structures for organic certification and its centralised policy management. Roehl’s firm a’verdis has been advising catering businesses and institutions for more than 35 years on all aspects of holistic concepts for meals. Among its services are annual excursions to Denmark so that participants – most of them from the catering industry – can get a clear idea of which levers can be applied to advance the switch to organic.
Beacon projects from Germany
It’s not just the Danish example of Copenhagen that shows how cities can influence the food environment and thus many people’s eating and consumption habits. A German project, Kantine Zukunft – Canteen of the Future – from Berlin highlights catering’s potential and is now attracting nationwide attention as a beacon project. Jointly with its participating kitchens, it offers in-depth, practical consulting, training seminars, networking events, excursions, and public-relations campaigns to advance Berlin’s culinary transformation. Since 2019, its consulting programme has assisted more than 50 cafeterias, whose use of organic products in all categories has reached 60 percent.
Another showcase example for organic catering is the WACKELPETER company in Hamburg. This organic caterer’s main business is in providing meals at childcare facilities and schools. They’ve been delivering 3,000 meals a day for more than 30 years – all 100% organic. Roehl knows the secret for success here, too. “The company has set up a supplier structure that’s very diverse and thus very resilient. They buy both from organic wholesalers and directly from the farms. Their meal prices are not necessarily higher than those from conventional competitors. The key is their simplified recipe and meal planning, for one thing, and for another, their continuous regional and seasonal optimization of their purchasing prices.” But the most crucial success factor is yet another one: organic foods are built into the DNA of the company’s philosophy. “The owners have a deep intrinsic motivation to be organic. Just as organic wholesalers deal only in organic products, these organic caterers cook only with organic foods – because they want to, and can’t do otherwise,” Roehl explains.
Fine-tuning for success
Usually, training at all levels, from basic to advanced, and the personal and professional development of kitchen and service terms, are viewed as the pathway to success. As for cost-effectiveness, Thomas Voss knows there are many ways to compensate for costs. “Revising menu plans and reducing how much they involve meat products – that can yield considerable financial savings that the kitchen can reallocate to buy higher-quality, more sustainable foods.” Sophia Hoffmann, chef and owner of Berlin’s HAPPA organic restaurant, believes there’s an additional opportunity: “Reducing food waste has a significant leverage effect that can make organic quality affordable.”
BIOFACH 2024 – The HoReCa Forum
BIOFACH too has adopted the goal of increasing the amount of organic products used in catering, and in February 2024 it will put a special spotlight on the topic. With the HoReCa Forum for institutional catering and the restaurant business, for the first time the event will offer a format tailored to the needs of the catering industry. “This new area will offer an opportunity for interactive networking,” explains Steffen Waris, the event head for Biofach. “We’ll be discussing matters like procurement and product availability, transforming a kitchen and a business, support available at the federal, state and municipal level, and also the new Organic Catering Regulation.”
 Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2022). Besser auswärts essen: BMEL fördert Bio in der Außer-Haus-Verpflegung. https://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/2022/152-ahv-bio.html
 Bundesverband Naturkost Naturwaren e.V. (2023). Bio außer Haus: Die Ampel steht auf grün. https://n-bnn.de/presse-medien/alle-artikel/artikel/bio-ausser-haus-die-ampel-steht-auf-gruen#:~:text=Auf%20Lieferanten%2DEbene%20nennt%20oekolandbau,nur%201%2C3%20Prozent%E2%80%9C.
 Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2023). Transparent und unternehmerfreundlich: Bio-Logo für Kantinen und Co. kommt. https://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/2023/103-bio-ahvv.html
 The Directive for the Promotion of Consulting for Entities in Catering on the Expanded Use of Products from Organic Farming. Richtlinie zur Förderung der Beratung von Unternehmen der Außer-Haus-Verpflegung zum vermehrten Einsatz von Produkten des ökologischen Landbaus. https://www.bundesprogramm.de/fileadmin/2-Dokumente/Richtlinien_und_Antraege/221011000291_BMEL_RiLi_Ausser_Haus_Verpflegung.pdf
 Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2023). Bio-Strategie 2030. https://www.bmel.de/SharedDocs/Downloads/DE/Broschueren/bio-strategie-2030.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=7
 Renner, L. (2021). Leuchtturm Dänemark. https://www.biopress.de/de/inhalte/details/7756/leuchtturm-daenemark.html