ANALYSIS - The European Commission is to tighten up on controls on marketing of organic foods across the EU to ensure a fair and even handed approach, writes Chris Harris.
Following an assessment by the European Court of Auditors, the commission is to ensure that member states should strengthen their supervisory role over control bodies for organic food production and the exchange of information within member states, between the member states and the commission and among the member states themselves should be improved.
The European Court of Auditors also called for checks to be strengthened to ensure that operators, such as producers, processors, importers, fulfil the regulatory requirements regarding traceability.
And the ECA said the Commission should strengthen its monitoring of the Member States’ control systems by undertaking audit visits and gathering the necessary data and information and putting it to good use.
The commission has also been advised to ensure that the countries on the list of those recognised as being equivalent for organic production are adequately supervised when they are exporting to the European Union.
The European Commission has said that it intends to follow the recommendations from the ECA and it says that it will include specific audits on the control systems for organic production by the Food and Veterinary Office from 2012 onwards.
The commission said that consumers within the EU can be sure that when they buy an organic apple or a piece of organic beef from their local supermarket, it has been produced according to strict rules.
The control system for organic products, as set out in the EU Regulations, aims at guaranteeing that the production processes conform to organic principles.
For organic products originating within the EU, Member States must set up a system of checks. Control bodies, which carry out these checks at the level of individual operators (such as producers, processors and importers) are central to this system.
Organic products from outside the EU may be recognised as organic, if the production rules and control system applied to them are considered equivalent to the EU’s.
However, the ECA said that the commission's control measures fell short and it considered that the shortcomings highlighted by its audit need to be remedied in order to provide sufficient assurance that the system is operating effectively and ensure that consumer confidence is not undermined.
The ECA’s special report (No. 9/2012) concluded that a number of competent authorities in the member states do not sufficiently fulfil their supervisory role over control bodies. As a result certain control bodies fail to satisfy a number of EU requirements and fail to take the opportunity to implement certain good practices.
The Commission had not audited Member States’ control systems between 2001 and the time of the Court’s audit.
Also, the competent authorities in Member States encounter difficulties in ensuring the traceability of organic products within their territories and such traceability is even more difficult to achieve for products that have crossed borders.
In relation to imported organic products, the system governing the various import schemes was also found to have weaknesses.
Following these findings, the ECA recommended that the European Commission should make changes to rectify the weaknesses.
In Europe, the organic market has rapidly developed and experienced annual growth rates of more than 10 per cent in the last two decades.
The European market for organic food amounts to about €20 billion annually, representing an estimated 1.5 per cent share of the entire food market.
The changes that have been recommended and that the European Commission says will be implemented could be applied to many other sectors within the food production industry in the EU and the model and changes that have been laid down by the ECA could easily be adopted for policing and enforcing other regulations that apply across the EU.