Organic Labels – the Crux With Controls

Not everything that says “organic” is also “organic”, because even in organic farming fraud is sometimes committed. Seals of approval from recognised certification bodies are intended to help consumers to distinguish reputable from dubious suppliers. But even here, cheating is not uncommon.

Last summer, the police confiscated a total of 90,000 metric tons of food in 16 European countries, including sunflowers, maize, soy beans, apples, wheat, berries and coconut milk. As it turned out, some 470 metric tons of fruit and vegetables had been offered as expensive organic goods. In reality, however, these were conventionally grown products, some of which were heavily contaminated with pesticides. Outside the EU, the situation is often no better: For example, inspectors from the certification organization Ceres repeatedly discover banned pesticides and fertilizers on farms in Ecuador where farmers are supposedly growing organic bananas.

The temptation to cheat with organic products is great, because the market is huge and there is a lot of money to be made. Organic produce is on average 30 percent more expensive than its conventionally grown counterpart. In 2018, consumers in Germany spent a total of 10.91 billion Euros on organic food. Organic has long since arrived in the masses. According to the Ökobarometer 2018, a study commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (Bundeslandwirtschaftsministerium), 78 percent of Germans bought organic food – at least occasionally.

Loopholes in organic production

But where there is a high demand, people like to cheat, because the growing demand cannot be met at all times of the year – especially since products such as coffee and bananas are only available outside the EU or not in sufficient quantities.

The EU organic label – like other organic labels – should in fact guarantee that organic products are actually inside if they are labelled as organic. For example, products bearing this seal are not allowed to use genetic engineering in cultivation, and there are also strict requirements for fertilizers.

In order to receive the German organic seal or the EU organic seal, farms, market gardens and winegrowers must therefore meet certain minimum ecological standards. The EU Organic Regulation, for example, stipulates that farms with the state organic seal must be inspected once a year. In Germany there are currently 23 private, state-approved organic inspection bodies for this purpose. The inspections are usually announced, but sometimes the inspectors turn up on the farm unexpectedly.

But there is a catch here, especially with organic farms from abroad, but also here in Germany: The inspection bodies are financially dependent on the producers – a local producer can choose which organic inspection body and which inspector checks him. And since the price difference between conventional products and organic products is very large, it is attractive for fraudsters to undercut goods that are not actually organic.

A further point of criticism is also the EU regulation on which the EU organic seal is based: The term “organic” is very broadly defined, for example five percent of conventional products are permitted and no freedom from residues is required, which makes it difficult to prove a violation of the regulation if no pesticides are found on the farmer’s premises during an inspection. For example, widely used pesticides are hardly noticeable during inspections, as farmers are often advised by spraying agent vendors to spray at the “right” time, because pesticides often have a short life span, which can then degrade in time. And the use of fertilisers is hardly detectable in the laboratory anyway – insiders complain. Only those who keep searching can still find what they are looking for – pesticides can be detected on leaves, flowers and in the soil of the fields after they have been sprayed.

Another problem is organic feed. Organic livestock farmers now like to fill their gaps in supply with goods from Eastern Europe, where in some places there is a different interpretation of organic. Are organic labels therefore mostly fraudulent?

Race between control and fraud

Fraud will probably never be entirely avoidable, especially since – as already mentioned – the organic inspection bodies live off those whom they control. However, the independence of the inspection bodies seems to be preserved in most cases, as the Consumer Initiative (Verbraucher Initiative e. V.) in Berlin examined a few years ago. On it has evaluated hundreds of labels, also based on the criterion of independence – and classified the EU organic label as “particularly recommendable”. The initiative is more concerned about labels that more and more companies give themselves and print on their packaging, giving themselves the appearance of a seal without having one.