Organic food fraud sends shockwaves through sector

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soil association Organic food

The Food Standards Agency's development of new testing methods for
organic food follows allegations that some suppliers have been
involved in fraud.

The new tests, developed for the agency by the government's Central Science Laboratory, were completed last year and have been checked using samples of pork and chicken bought in the High Street.

But it is only in the last few days that organic fraud has become front-page news. An ITV West Eye View investigation into apparently fraudulent or unlicensed organic meat sales has drawn responses from not only the FSA, but also organisations such as the Soil Association.

"The Soil Association welcomes the investigations undertaken by ITV West Eye View,"​ said the association in a statement. "Over the past 60 years, we have worked to develop the principles, standards and practices of organic food and farming, which are now set down in UK, European and International law and regulations."

The importance of the issue has been heightened by the fact that this once-niche sector has experienced rapid growth, driven by public concerns over industrial farming and the cluster of 'food scares' linked to excessive use of agrochemicals, animal drugs and GM.

Any question of credibility is therefore of great concern, because consumer trust is pivotal to the long-term health of the sector. As a result, the Soil Association has been quick to initiate actions.

"The most serious apparent breach of our standards concerned a Soil Association licensee selling meat products for which he did not have the appropriate processing licence,"​ said the association in a statement.

"On receiving confirmation of the identity of this licensee, the Soil Association undertook an immediate unannounced inspection. Our investigations are still in progress, but the licensee was immediately prohibited from selling any of the suspect product ranges as organic."

Depending on their response to this serious non-compliance, the outcome could be suspension of their licence to process and sell any produce directly to the public as organic. If their actions are seen to have brought the Soil Association's name into disrepute and/or are found to be in breach of organic regulations total termination of their licence with the organisation would follow.

For their part, the new FSA tests are designed to detect the presence and number of treatments of antibiotics in chicken bones or pork bones. This indicates one aspect of whether the chicken or pork has been reared organically or using non-organic farming methods.

The use of antibiotics is permitted in organic chicken and pork only once a year, to cure infection, whereas conventionally reared chicken and pork might show the use of antibiotics more frequently. The tests will also indicate when antibiotics have been used more systematically - and illegally - on the animals as a growth-promoting agent.

The FSA said however that most mislabelling fraud would continue to be detected by local authority enforcement officers checking a 'paper trail' to indicate if claimed organic produce has really come from an authentic source. The agency recently provided funds to assist Richmond Borough Council in pursuing legal action against two traders fraudulently selling meat and meat products as 'organic'.

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