Consumers who are willing to pay extra for organic fruits, vegetables and other goods may not always get what they are hoped for due to lax oversight in some EU countries.
That is the conclusion of the European Court of Auditors, which found that not all goods labelled ‘organic’ actually comply with strict rules on how they were grown or handled.
In some cases, investigators found pesticides in apples from Italy and fresh milk from France, antibiotics in bacon from the UK, genetically modified lemons in lemonade from Germany and conservation agents in eggs from Spain.
Organic farming is a sector of European agriculture which has seen a constant growth in recent years.
The EU's control system for organic products aims at guaranteeing that the production processes conform to organic principles. For organic products originating within the EU, member states must set up a system of checks to ensure product claims are legitimate.
As of 1 July, all prepackaged organic products must carry the EU's green 'Euro leaf' label.
Making sure that the control systems work is important, Kevin Cardiff, member of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), told a recent press conference in releasing a report on organic foods.
The report is based on audits ECA recently carried out in Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Spain and Ireland that focused on the effectiveness of the control system.
"The Court of Auditors was interested in the system, not only from the point of view of ensuring that it is compliant with EU legislation, but also because farmers can receive extra money from the EU funds for being organic," Cardiff said.
"And in addition, there's a consumer interest where members of the public pay more and therefore they are keenly interested in ensuring that it really is organic," he added.
Low consumer demand
Organic farming remains a tiny part of European agriculture despite strong support programmes in Austria, Sweden, Estonia and a few other countries. Some 9.3 million hectares – barely 5% of EU farmland – is organic, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, in Frick, Switzerland.
In Denmark, 30% of the milk sold in the country is organic milk.
Demand for organic food remains low in general – representing barely 2% of total food expenses in the 15 oldest EU members, a European Commission study in 2007 showed.
Organic production is in the EU defined as an overall system of farm management and food production that aims at sustainable agriculture, the production of high-quality products and the use of processes that do not harm the environment or human, plant and animal health.
Control bodies in the member states fail to satisfy a number of EU requirements, according to the ECA, and fail to take the opportunity to implement good practices.
The court found that there were several weaknesses present in the system, for example in being able to find the source of a product.
“Within a three-month time frame, 40% of the products could not be fully traced back to the level of the producer," Cardiff said.
The ECA also criticised the Commission for not having audited member states' control systems between 2001 and the time of the Court's three-month audit, in 2012.
"The Commission should strengthen its monitoring of member states by carrying out the auditor visits that it is required to do. This is something that has not been done for 10 years," Cardiff stated.
In its response to the audit, the Commission acknowledged shortcomings in its oversight of organic food and agreed to take corrective steps.
Heavy metals and pesticides
From 73 samples that were analysed, 67 samples were subject to a single type of analysis while six samples were subject to two different types of analysis. This resulted in a total of 79 analyses including tests for pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, heavy metals and conservation agents.
In Germany, the auditors found both heavy metals and conservation agents in shrimps, and pesticide and GMO in soy beans. In Italy, both pesticides and GMO traces were found in maize oil.
The ECA has, in the light of the weaknesses found during the audit, recommended the Commission improve the exchange of information between member states and the Commission.
The Commission should also strengthen its monitoring of the member states' control systems by undertaking audit visits. Checks should be strengthened to ensure that producers, processors and importers fulfil the regulatory requirements when it comes to traceability, the report says.
There are around 190 organic oversight bodies and authorities in the EU.