For several years, a handful of Italian firms sold conventionally produced food products under an organic label. Italian police arrested seven fraud suspects this week, including the heads of several food companies.
Pinton laments the lack of a central organics database
Products that are organic, known in Germany as "bio," fetch a higher price than those grown conventionally. Now there's doubt as to whether the 220 million euros worth of products sold by these companies in Europe actually were organic.
Deutsche Welle discussed the issue with Roberto Pinton, secretary of AssoBio, the Italian organic processors and distributors association.
It has been said that what just happened in Italy is a one-off case. What is the scale of incidents like this?
In Italy, our official controls - made not only by the organic control board but even by the public authorities - found 3.8 percent noncompliance in all organic products sold in the Italian market. We are in a better position compared to conventional, non-organic food, because among all high-quality products - protected denomination of origin and so on - there was more than 12 percent noncompliance last year.
Why did inspection controls fail to detect this earlier?
The problem is, we don't have a single database in Italy. We have 12 databases from 12 control bodies, so it was not so easy to detect the problem. Some workers did a dirty job. There was a vortex of invoices and falsely certified documents. When we found noncompliance, the control bodies fired two people, presented facts to the authorities and started an official inquiry.
How can these industry checks be improved for the next time?
Global trade in organic foods increases the importance of control systems
We need a centralized database that records all sales of organic products, giving total transparency to trade so you can see if the certificates of the company are real, and know the company is really organic. But our ministry is wasting time. It has a lot of money - about 1.5 million euros - but is thinking of too complex an architecture, and not an easy-to-use database. We need a unified European database because we have a global market. Analysis is not enough. There are products that may be grown without pesticides, but are still not really organic.
How safe are organic products in general?
Products were sold with forged certificates by these five Italian companies, but they were safe. In Italy, as in Germany, we have a good control system, but with some holes. The European regulation also has holes in that it's not compulsory to have a certificate for every sale. They say this makes it easier for the market, but maybe it's a better idea to write a certificate for every invoice. It could help safety and transparency on the market.
The next problem will be from outside of the European market, because it is importing a lot of products from South America, from Africa, from Eastern countries. And we need to take a close look at certification from everywhere. It's not a national issue.
How much damage does this kind of incident cause for the booming organic food market?
During the dioxin scandal in Germany, only organic eggs were free of the chemical
The products involved in fraud were mostly for animal feed, like soybeans. Fruits and vegetables were not involved. But the picture of an apple is more pleasant than the picture of a soybean, so on television and in the newspapers, there was a lot of fruit and vegetables. We are asking the press for correct information at the consumer level.
We haven't gotten feedback from the supermarkets, but in specialized shops – and in Italy, these are the most important channel – at the moment, there is not a decrease in sales. Consumers are worried about the problem, but we're showing that action is being taken on the issue.
How can consumers confirm that the products they buy are actually organic in light of the forged seals?
Maybe the milk or the eggs you are buying came from a farm that has used these false organic products in the past, but the fraud ended in February 2010. So you can be quite sure about the quality of what you buy now.
There are two inspectors now in prison. We have [heads of] five companies now in prison. The controls have been done - we are more strict and severe than the conventional food sector. In the last 20 years within the conventional food market, this is the first time someone has gone to prison, which is a big deterrent for companies. It's important that if you're guilty, you go to prison. When you see that criminals are stopped, you become more confident in the control system.
Interview: Amanda Price
Editor: Sonya Angelica Diehn