Systematic problems in the certification and labelling of organic foods in Ireland have been uncovered by EU food and health safety inspectors.
They found some foodstuffs were allowed to retain their organic certification even when serious breaches of regulations were discovered.
The first-ever EU audit of controls on organic foods also claimed weaknesses in the monitoring system have been overlooked by the Department of Agriculture.
The findings of the audit raise some serious questions over a sector which is estimated to be worth €142m annually in terms of organic food sales in the Republic.
Five bodies – the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA), Organic Trust and Global Trust Certification, the Institute of Marketecology and the UK-based Biodynamic Agriculture Association– are authorised to certify and monitor individuals and businesses engaged in organic farming and food production.
The audit found one unnamed certification body classified the vast majority of breaches of organic food regulations as “deviations.”
It meant organic farmers and food producers only needed to take corrective action even though EU inspectors said it indicated the organic status of the foodstuff was affected and decertification should have been considered for the irregularities.
Another certification body which reported an irregularity as a severe breach with a prolonged effect did not recommend that the farmer’s organic licence should be suspended. EU inspectors said the case should have been classified as “a massive infringement.”
They also found that certification bodies did not always seek immediate evidence that a non-compliant product had not been sold as organic, but instead waited until another inspection at a later date.
In one case, a certification body had not noticed an organic food producer had used a label which indicated the use of a non-organic ingredient.
The audit by the European Commission’s food and health safety division found that the Department of Agriculture was not immediately notified of severe irregularities in some cases.
An audit report said delays in notifying the department of such problems undermined the effectiveness of the control system on organic products.
“The system in place does not guarantee that all operators are registered [and] that the list of operators is reliably updated,” it stated.
“Controls of labels and traceability systems are insufficient to identify and/or rectify shortcomings,” it added.
Although certification bodies notify the Department of Agriculture of new and suspended operators on a monthly basis, such changes are not necessarily made to the public list of licensed organic operators.
Although controls at farms were generally well performed, EU inspectors said the supervision of organic food processors was “generally weak” and “overall superficial” with no in-depth verification of information provided by licensed operators.
The Department of Agriculture admitted that due to limited resources it had no dedicated staff members allocated to supervise organic food processing.
There are approximately 2,300 licensed organic operators in the Republic, of which around 1,800 are farmers. Around 3% of farmers are estimated to opt out of organic certification each year.
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