German health officials are investigating 150 poultry farms suspected of flouting the rules for free-range egg production. Following the horsemeat scandal, critics are now calling for a tougher control system for food.
Prosecutors in the city of Oldenburg said they had evidence that, over a number of years, poultry farmers in northern Germany - some of them on organic farms - had systematically violated rules for the production of free range eggs.
Regulations stipulate a minimum of four square meters of space for each animal for a poultry farm to be able to sell its products as "free range." It has now emerged that several farmers kept more animals than permitted, selling the eggs for a higher price than they otherwise would be able to because of the free range status.
The new agriculture minister of Lower Saxony, Christian Meyer of the environmentalist Green party, said that investigations had begun in 2011, but then more cases had come to light.
The information was made public, following a change of government in Lower Saxony last week.
"We suspect that there has been systematic fraud on a large scale and that is a serious crime," said Christian Meyer.
Records show that controls had long been lacking, with health officials often relying solely on written information submitted by the farmers, instead of leaving their offices to do spot-checks on egg producers.
About 150 farms in Lower Saxony and 50 more in other German states are now under scrutiny. In case of wrong-doing, perpetrators could face hefty fines or even prison sentences.
The latest reports come as a Europe-wide horse meat scandal has raised concern about the effectiveness of controls in the food sector.
In Germany alone, 67 products have been taken off supermarket shelves as they were found to contain horsemeat while having been declared beef products. Horse meat often contains traces of medication deemed potentially dangerous to human health.
EU agriculture ministers are set to meet in Brussels today to discuss improvements to EU wide controls on labeling and tracing food.
rg/rc (dpa, AFP)