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Thursday, July 19, 2012

European Court of Auditors audits organic product control

The European Court of auditors published a special report (approved the 28th March) about its audit of the control system for organic products, whether they provide sufficient assurance that the key requirements for organic production, processing, distribution and imports are fulfilled. Control procedures governing the organic production within the EU, were introduced by Regulation (EC) No 834/2007 , from January 2009 while control procedures for importing products were introduced by Council Regulation (EEC) No 2092/9120 and amendments in June 1991. The organic market has rapidly developed and experienced annual growth rates of more than10 % in the last two decades. The European market for organic food amounts to about 20 billion euro annually, representing an estimate of 1,5 % share of the entire food market. Therefore it is important that customers should have assurance that the products they buy as organic, are really produced according to the rules. The Member States have to set up a control system that verifies and certifies for each operator in the supply chain (farmers, processors, importers) the correct application of the production rules. The control system aims at guaranteeing the production processes and not the products themselves since there is no scientific way to determine whether a product is or¬ganic or not. The Member States designate one or more competent authorities responsible for controls. This authority designates, depending on the system chosen: public control authorities; private control bodies; or a mix of the two. Where a Member State chooses a system with private control bodies, these bodies need to be accredited. Each EU Member State has appointed a single national accreditation body. The Commission is responsible for auditing Member States’ control systems. Four systems were foreseen for imports, out of which the system of recognized equivalent third countries (managed by the Commission) and of import authorizations, provided by the Member States are operational. This latter was intended to be transitional, two other regimes, both based on the recognition of recognized control bodies or authorities for countries which have not yet attained recognition. The unified system of EU production control is put in place so that any consumer in any Member State can be sure that a product certified by another Member States conforms to the same requirement as that labelled in their own country. The court found weaknesses in the control system of the Member States (which is no surprise, its task is to find the weak points). It highlighted the following main problems: Some authorities do not exercise sufficient control over the control bodies that actually perform the controls. They do not have the information to ensure that all operators are inspected at least once a year, as required. Exchange of information does not always function correctly, even within Member States and there are difficulties in ensuring the traceability of the organic products. This is even more difficult to achieve for products crossing borders. Exchange of information could help in adopting good practices in areas like testing for residual chemicals where the regulation is interpreted differently by different control bodies. The audit also tested the methods of residue testing and found some good practices to disseminate. Two of the ten control bodies, however, did not apply adequate procedures for sampling and analysis. In assessing the traceability, the auditors found one case of a falsified certificate which is part of a larger ongoing investigation of alleged fraud. Also concerning traceability, from the sample 32 % of the products could not be traced back to the producer level and the information required was complete for only 56 % of the products (after collecting additional information). One major explanation for this situation is that Member States do not have authority over operators outside their territory, in the case of products or product ingredients crossing intra- and extra-EU borders. The Commission has to exercise more oversight in the EU and has to collect more information to assess that third countries recognised as equivalent continue to fulfil the requirements. There is also a significant backlog in assessing applications for equivalence from third countries – probably also due to the lack of information.

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