Organic Food Fraud in the EU: Meaning, Examples & Prevention

Learn why and how to protect your business from organic food fraud.

What is food fraud?

The term ‘food fraud’ refers to the mislabeling, concealment, diversion, dilution, substitution/adulteration, concealment, unapproved enhancement, counterfeiting or grey market production/theft/diversion of foods. ‘Mislabeling’, which occurs when a product’s label does not reflect its actual attributes, remains the most common form of food fraud in the EU. This is particularly relevant in our industry as it encompasses the mislabelling of conventional foods as ‘organic’. Economic motivations often drive food fraud, and the European Commission estimates that it accounts for approximately 8 to 12 billion Euros in damages annually.

Food fraud can be intentional, for example, in instances of adulteration or forgery, or unintentional, such as in the case of bad handling or negligent preparation practices. Furthermore, while some types of food fraud are harmful to human health, such as when the presence of toxins is concealed, others are not, as is the case when frozen ingredients are marked as ‘fresh’. Regardless of the type of food fraud, these cases pose a threat to industries as they reduce consumer trust and threaten supply chain stability.

Scientific studies have shown that olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, orange juice, apple juice, grape wine, vanilla extract and fish are the products which are most subject to food fraud. Among EU member states, Germany continues to champion the fight against food fraud with the highest number of requests to investigate potential food fraud instances. It is followed by the European Commission, France, and Belgium, while other member states continue to trail behind.

When comparing the number of requests made within the EU on a year-over-year basis from 2016 - 2019, the fruit and vegetables category reveals interesting data: the number of requests grew by over 500% in this period. Experts attribute this rise to the increase in fraud in the organic sector.

 

What is organic food fraud?

Economic motives commonly drive organic food fraud as fraudsters attempt to profit from the high price tags attached to organic foods. As the demand for organics increases, so does the level of fraud in this category, and data shows that it remains one of the food types most likely to be subjected to fraudulent practices.

The types of fraud prevalent in organic foods differ from those in conventional foods as organic foods are subject to their own set of regulations. The use of GMOs, artificial pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones are banned in organic agriculture. Hence, organic food is classified as fraudulent when these are concealed, and labels are marked as organic. Laboratory analyses that measure pesticide residues in foods can determine whether a food marked as organic is indeed organic or an imposter.

Traceability remains one of the most crucial factors in ensuring the authenticity of organic claims and labels. According to data published by Euractiv, in 2019, the EU was still struggling greatly in this area as an audit revealed that only 40% of the audited products could be traced back to the initial producer. This comes to show how imperative it is to select trustworthy partners and suppliers in organics.

 

How does the EU prevent food fraud?

The European Commission has introduced and implemented a number of actions and initiatives in an effort to uphold the EU organic logos reputation and combat fraud in the industry. Here are a few:

Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES)

This online management tool tracks animals, food, feed and plants imported from outside the European Union, which allows for swift tracking and communication when problems arise.


Learn more on ec.europa.eu

 

The New Organic Regulation

This new set of rules entered into force on 1 January 2021 and has since worked to promote the following: 

  • Fairness: EU organic farmers and the EU organic logo offer consumers the same quality guarantees all over Europe via one set of EU-wide rules covering the whole EU organic sector. 

  • Balance: between the need to carry out controls to ensure consumer confidence in the sector and the burden that this places on farmers and competent authorities alike.

  • Import & Exports: rather than producing to standards considered equivalent to the EU rules, producers in third countries must now comply with the same set of rules as those in the EU.

Read more on ec.europa.eu

 

The Official Controls Regulation (OCR)

This regulation addresses official controls and other official activities performed to ensure the application of food and feed law, rules on animal health and welfare, plant health and plant protection products.

Read more on ec.europa.eu

 

The OPSON VIII Operation

In 2018, the EC launched this targeted action on organics in collaboration with Europol to uncover fraudulent practices in F&B. Within the framework of this initiative, the EC launched 63 fraud requests and thus flagged 90,000 tonnes of organic products as suspicious. This resulted in 12 criminal investigations.

Read more on ioas.org  

 

How to protect your business from organic fraud

These are the four steps you must regularly undertake to protect your business from organic fraud:

Below you will find more details on what these steps entail:

 

1. Educate yourself

  • Familiarise yourself with relevant organic regulations and potential threats

 

2. Assess your business

  • Gather information & map your supply chain 

    • Who are your suppliers? 

    • Where are their products stored? How are they packaged? 

    • What other ingredients do your products contain?

    • What standards are they certified according to (e.g. Codex Alimentarius)

    • Have you implemented HACCP, VACCP, TACCP and HARPC requirements? If yes, which? If no, which not?

  • Assess your activities and identify potential impacts, risks and vulnerabilities

 

3. Devise a plan

  • Create a strategy to mitigate any potential food fraud impacts, risks or vulnerabilities 

    • Create clear checklist of what you need for each ingredient

    • Demand missing information, reports or certificates from existing suppliers

    • Don’t be afraid to explore other options: 

      • Are there other suppliers out there that would provide you with everything you need proactively/with less effor? 

      • Would additional laboratory testing add an extra layer of security? Can your partners support you with this?

    • Document your strategy in writing 

 

4. Act

  • Implement your food fraud mitigation strategy 

    • Make all necessary changes to your business and supply chain as quickly as possible

    • Communicate these changes to all relevant stakeholders and make sure all employees understand their role(s) in upholding this plan 

    • Review and revise your strategy regularly (e.g. quarterly/annually, depending on the size and complexity of your business) 

    • Also remember to ask suppliers to provide you with updated certification before it expires

According to experts, food fraud rose by 38% in the last quarter of 2020. This validates the claim that food fraudsters are likely to take advantage of supply chain disruptions, such as those caused by the pandemic or Brexit. Thus, food industry actors are advised to remain vigilant and continue to implement, review and adapt their measures to combat food fraud.

 

For more information & further reading: 

 

Imagery: (1) Nazar Hrabovyi, (2) Art Rachen, (4) Markus Winkler and (5) Peter Wendt via unsplash.com; (3) foodcircle

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