How to Protect Your Company from Organic Food Fraud

By Karen Constable

In the first part of this two-part series, we explained the increased number of cases of food fraud in the organic sector. We also provided a case study describing one of the largest cases to date, in which the perpetrator sold more than 142 million dollars’ worth of fraudulent grain. In part two we will be examining common fraud cases in this sector that could affect your business and what you should do to prevent it from happening.

On the other side of the world, in the European country of Bulgaria, an investigative journalist found that farmers seemed to be fraudulently claiming European Union subsidies The subsidies were paid to farmers for growing organic soybeans on fields that were, according to the journalist “covered in weeds”. Her report, dated October 2020, asserts that “[the fields were] cultivated with soybeans, but only on paper.”

Unfortunately, it is not only grains and seeds that are affected by organic fraud. Meat, eggs and dairy foods are also affected.

In 2020, in the USA state of Texas, an undercover investigator accidentally unearthed organic fraud at a cow sale while investigating animal welfare issues. The investigator, who was posing as an animal handler, was told “Out-of-state cows come in, they turn into Texas cows when they leave.”

The investigator witnessed cows’ identification tags being switched from an ear tag that declared the cow was conventionally raised (that is, not organic) to a fraudulent new back tag that made the cow appear to be organic and from Texas. He was told that switching the tags “can triple or quadruple their sale value”.

Eggs have also been affected by organic fraud. Sadly, food fraud in eggs is often perpetrated by simply taking a conventionally raised product, like cage eggs, and labelling them as organic or free range. In Spain, in October 2020, authorities seized 5000 tons of eggs that were falsely claimed to be organic.

With organic eggs commanding as much as two times the price of conventional eggs, a simple label switch can be extremely profitable for food fraud criminals.

As organic food becomes ever-more popular, frauds like these are expected to become more common. It can be difficult for purchasers to know whether food is authentically organic or not. This makes organic fraud easy for criminals to get away with.

The good news for businesses in the US is that after many years of criticism, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is making a visible effort to reduce fraud in the organic supply chain. In fact, they are proposing new rules that aim to strengthen control systems, improve traceability for organic produce, and increase enforcement of the USDA organic regulations.
In Europe, a collaborative project that combines the efforts of partners from the food industry, laboratories and academia will develop analytical methods to confirm and support the authenticity of organic foods. The project has been funded by the European Future Investment Programme and is called TOFoo (True Organic Food).

Also in Europe, the Institute for Global Food Security, at Queen’s University Belfast, has commenced a project that aims to develop new approaches to counter fraud in the organic food supply chains. The project will make use of digital technologies, new spectrographic analytical methods and stakeholder engagement to improve the transparency of organic food supply chains.

Protect your brands from food fraud

If your business buys or sells organic food, it is at risk from food fraud. Organic fraud is easy and profitable to commit for economic gain.

To protect your brands, stay alert to the risks. Michigan State University and the USA Organic Trade Association have a free online course in Organic Fraud Prevention. It is US-centric but contains fraud detection and prevention strategies that can be applied anywhere.
When buying food and feed, check all documentation carefully: request copies of organic certificates and cross-check them against the supplier’s or grower’s name and address on invoices and labels. Verify the certificate’s validity on the certification body’s website. You can also check a list of fraudulent certificates on the USDA organic program website.
If you can’t be sure of the authenticity of the food you are buying you must either change your supplier to one with a properly certified organic program or amend claims for the products you sell.

To do anything else puts your company at risk of inadvertently committing food fraud, which is a criminal offence. Stay alert to organic fraud and keep your brands safe.

About the Author

Karen Constable is the principal of Food Fraud Advisors, which provides consultancy services, tools and training to help the food industry understand and minimise the risks from food fraud. Karen has twenty-five years’ experience in food manufacturing, quality assurance, food product development and food safety. She is a professional member of AIFST (Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology) and a member of the Food Fraud Professional Development Group of IAFP (The International Association of Food Protection).

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