FRAUD BUSTERS: TIGHTER CONTROLS

Two of the UK's leading organic certification bodies have defended their schemes after fraudulent organic sales and confusion among retailers were exposed in the media.

An ITV West Eye View programme was screened in May, revealing a six-month investigation into organic meat sales which included butchers in Dorset and Devon and a producer at Bristol farmers' market all illegally selling standard meat as organic. Earlier this month, Organic Farmers & Growers (OF&G) sought to redress media coverage focusing on confusion in the retail meat trade while the Soil Association (SA) has tightened up its controls after one of its members was exposed as misleading consumers in the programme.

According to OF&G chief executive Richard Jacobs, the rules relating to the slaughter and cutting of meat at retail are straightforward and certification should only cost about £200. Further, retailers selling pre-packed, accredited and labelled meat do not need certification themselves. "It's a real shame that mixed messages about this are reaching butchers and their customers," says Jacobs. "It is a pretty straightforward matter and, if they do have certification, butchers can then take advantage of this by clearly displaying their certificate of organic status. The more butchers who do this the better informed the public will be."

Retailers selling pre-packed organic meat should verify their supplier's certification, while those cutting and packing meat or selling it loose from the counter require certification. "The rules are there to ensure shoppers can be confident that what they are buying is organic," says Jacobs. "Gaining organic status involves demonstrating to an inspector that organic meat is handled and stored separately from non-organic and that there is no risk of substitution of non-organic where the customer expects they are buying organic. Once a butcher has satisfied the inspector and has been issued with a certificate, this can then be checked and enforced by spot inspections to ensure all proper procedures are being followed. These can be by either the certifying body, Trading Standards or both."

SA, meanwhile, last month responded to the programme by undertaking an investigation into its licensee identified as selling meat products without an appropriate processing license. It announced it would write to all licensees to verify the conditions of their certification, proactively target butchers' associations with information on organic retailing and possibly appoint an additional inspector to monitor licensees' production outside the scope of SA certification.

SA said it has investigated 14 cases of licensees in apparent or actual breach of their licence requirements and organic regulations over the last year, with seven license terminations following.

In relation to the butchers exposed in the programme, SA said that although none of the offenders were SA-accredited, it would nonetheless contact butchers' organisations to remind them of the legal licensing requirements."The issue here appears to be more around ignorance of the law rather than deliberate attempts to deceive or defraud the public," reads a statement from the SA.

"SA inspectors already carry-out spot checks on outlets selling organic meat comparing the weight of organic meat going in for processing to that being sold to consumers," it continues. "This Input/Output Balance auditing is a proven method of establishing whether or not any illegal 'bulking up' of sales with non-organic meat is being perpetrated. Combined with our routine and regular traceability audits - following the certification paper-trail from field and farm to shop shelf, the public can be reassured that the vast majority of Soil Association certified products are exactly what they say they are."

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