Britain's organic food scam exposedJamie Doward, Mark Townsend and Andrew Wander
Sunday August 21, 2005
Britain's organic food revolution was facing its first serious test last night after an Observer investigation revealed disturbing levels of fraud within the industry.Farmers, retailers and food inspectors have disclosed a catalogue of malpractice, including producers falsely passing off food as organic and retailers failing to gain accreditation from independent inspectors. The findings raise concerns that consumers paying high premiums for organic food are being ripped off.The revelations follow what is believed to have been the UK's first concerted investigation into organic food fraud by trading standards officers. An inquiry for Richmond council, in south-west London, exposed a number of retailers wrongly selling food as organic. Two traders were prosecuted earlier this month as a result of the investigation.Stephen Sains, a butcher in Richmond, was fined more than £6,000 for falsely labelling food. Andrew Portch, a Somerset farmer, was fined more than £3,000 for food labelling offences and using organic certification without the right accreditation. Portch's firm declined to comment. Sains said he was changing his labelling.Trading standards teams across the UK told The Observer they were aware consumers' concerns about fraud were increasing. 'As organic food increases in popularity, more people are going to take advantage,' said David Pickering of the Trading Standards Institute.Norfolk council's trading standards department said it had investigated a number of people over the production and marketing of organic food in recent years. 'It's certainly an area open to exploitation. People see organic food as a way to make a few quick bob,' a spokesman said.Earlier this year, Dorset council launched a clampdown on fraud within the organic food industry which has grown chiefly thanks to a rise in the number of farmers' markets and home delivery 'box schemes'.But, despite the concerns, trading standards officers said few resources were being devoted to tackling the growing problem.'The term organic is clearly being abused, by both producers and sellers. Not many local authorities have the resources to test the integrity of organic food,' said Dr Yunes Teinaz, principal environmental health officer at Hackney Borough Council.Figures from market research agency Mintel suggest three out of four households now buy some organic food and environmental groups said fraudulent activity within the industry must be stamped out for the sake of customers and legitimate farmers.'It is not right consumers are paying over the odds because of fraudsters,' said Vicki Hird, Friends of the Earth's food campaigner.'These people are causing economic damage to other businesses who are playing by the rules,' said Jenny Morris of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.There are fears an increasing amount of 'organic' food is coming in from overseas making it difficult to establish its provenance.'There are no tests for proving food is organic,' Morris said. 'So it comes down to traceability, you have to follow a paper trail.'