EU Audit in Belgium on organic production and labeling – Are we still surprised of “organic frauds”?

Here below the summary of the above mentioned audit report:

“This report describes the outcome of a DG Health and Food Safety audit in Belgium, carried out between 19 September 2017 to 29 September 2017, under the provisions of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 on official food and feed controls.

The objective of the audit was to evaluate the controls on organic production and labelling of organic products.

The control system for organic production in Belgium is only partially in place. There is no competent authority responsible for import controls of organic goods, and market controls only cover follow up of complaints and control bodies are not annually supervised by all regional competent authorities.

Although inspections by control bodies at operators are overall effective and the number of additional and unannounced inspections and sampling by control bodies goes far beyond EU requirements, enforcement is weak, in particular, in cases of severe and recurrent irregularities.

This, together with the fact that the likelihood of irregularities are neither reported to competent authorities nor fully investigated by them reduces the effectiveness of the control system.”

This report highlights some typical factors that increase the likelihood of frauds in the organic sector:

  • weak import controls are the main gate for fraudulent activities. The organic market is assuming a huge dimension in EU and we cannot rely on internal production to cover the needs of raw materials. Certain commodities are in large parte – or mainly – imported: this is the case for instance of many grains and cereals, lentils, tree nuts…
  • the hybrid nature of the control bodies (CBs) is a major weakness as well: in most Member States they are private bodies invested of a public function (namely do the controls for the competent authorities). That means that they have the obligation to report irregularities to the competent authorities (CAs), but they are also competing hard with other CBs to survive on the market. Therefore they could be not so keen to share information about investigations, especially on sensitive cases, with the CAs. They often tend to protect the certified food business operators, that to a certain extent are also their “clients”;
  • the weak supervision of the CAs on the CBs can foster illegality and in any case allows a less transparent management of non compliance cases, for reasons explained in point 2.

The good news is that in most countries the number of inspections is above EU requirements and that they are unannounced, but in our experience on the ground in several Member States the CBs are too focused on paperwork and much less on the fields. An illegal treatment of crops might be spotted much better from a walk beneath them, than from a registry.

Consumers and regulators often rely on labeling and traceability as tools to prevent similar frauds (conventional food passed as organic, country of origin different from what declared), but since these tool are only “paper” they are quite easy to fake for any experienced fraudster. Moreover, they increase the final costs of the products, increasing as well incentives for fraudsters.

The organic sector is mainly involved in what we can call “commercial frauds”: they involve quality and usually are not likely to cause any risk for the public health. As a consequence, in my opinion, this could be one of the sectors where new technologies that might secure transactions along the supply chain and reinforce traceability, including blockchain, should be applied first and get the better added value.

 

FVO Report – Organic production and labelling in France

This report describes the outcome of an audit which took place in France from 9 to 20 September 2013 in order to evaluate the control systems for organic production and labelling of organic products; a previous audit to France on the same topic was carried out in 1999.

There is an overall effective system for controls of organic production and labelling of organic products in France, while national provisions provide a clear legal framework for the implementation of organic production rules although some of them differ from the requirements as laid down in the European Union (EU) legislation.

Control Bodies (CBs) are not always accredited before being approved by the National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO). This is not in accordance with EU requirements, as accreditation according to norm EN 45011 may sometimes occur a long time after their approval. Although CBs have in general a sufficient number of suitably qualified and experienced staff, deficiencies in the performance of newly recruited staff without appropriate tutoring were noted.  Some controls carried out by the CBs were found to be ineffective. Differences in interpretation of analytical results for residues of pesticides and contaminants were noted between the CBs visited.

In some cases, the threshold for initiation of an investigation was not in accordance with EU legislation. In some cases, CBs did not immediately notify the Central Competent Authority (CCA) when deficiencies, affecting the organic status of the products, had been detected. In a limited number of cases enforcement was weak or missing.

Documentation, issued to operators, setting out their approval status is not published, which is contrary to the requirements of Article 92(a) of Regulation (EC) No 889/2008. As a consequence, those receiving product along the supply chain, those performing controls and consumers, cannot readily verify that suppliers and products have been appropriately certified.

In general, controls on labelling of organic and in-conversion products were effective. Traceability from retailer to the producer was satisfactory (in one case, identifying an ingredient erroneously declared as organic).

The French instructions delegate to CBs the administration of certain exceptions to organic production standards, which is not in compliance with EU requirements, whilst in other cases (e.g. mutilations) derogations have been granted countrywide without any effective control or verification.

Procedures for communication, co-ordination and co-operation between the CBs and the CCA, and among the different Competent Authorities (CAs), are in place, with the only exception being the French Paying Agency (ASP); with the effect that important information concerning controls carried out by the ASP are not being used to target or prioritise the controls operated by other
CAs.

(Source DG Sanco – FVO website)