Cornucopia’s Investigative Findings on Import Fraud ConfirmedApril 10th, 2019
Cornucopia’s Take: Last year, Cornucopia publicized the identity of multi-billion dollar agribusinesses and their affiliates, located in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have been connected to grain imports of questionable organic status.
The article from Organic-Market, below, credits Cornucopia with uncovering organic grain fraud and chronicles the ongoing problems related to imports originating from high-risk regions.
Shortly after Cornucopia published its findings, some of the same agribusinesses identified in our report curiously surrendered their organic certifications and engaged Control Union Certifications, a major multi-national certification body.
As reported by Organic-Market, the European Commission has now limited the authority of Control Union to certify organic products originating in Turkey, Russia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and the United Arab Emirates.
The decision calls into question not only the certification activities of Control Union, but the practices of the operations in those countries that it certified.
Cornucopia has contended that imports from these countries cannot be trusted without verification. We have again called for the USDA to enhance oversight of imports presented for entry at U.S. ports and border crossings.
EU commission withdraws licence of international organic certifier
by Leo Frühschütz
The EU commissions has withdrawn the organic certification licence for five countries from the international certification body Control Union, as its bad performance facilitated organic fraud.
When organic food produce is imported in the EU from third party countries, a control body or authority must control and confirm the conformity of the product with the EU-Organic-Regulation. The control authorities have to be recognised by the EU commission; currently there are 57 certification bodies approved by the commission, including several that are operating in over 100 countries worldwide. The EU commission has now withdrawn the approval for Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from Control Union Certification (CUC), one of the largest of these international control authorities.
Punishment for sloppy work
The EU commission explained its decision in EU regulation 2019/446 by stating: “The Commission carried out investigations on suspected irregularities in relation to several lots of products from Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates that had been certified as being organic by ‘Control Union Certifications’. ‘Control Union Certifications’ did not provide timely and conclusive answers to the various requests for information made by the Commission. In addition, ‘Control Union Certifications’ failed to demonstrate the traceability and organic status of those products. Moreover, ‘Control Union Certifications’ issued a certificate of inspection for products that had previously been downgraded to conventional by the competent authorities of a Member State due to pesticide residues.”
In a nutshell: CUC’s controls and certification were so sloppy that potential organic fraudsters had an easy job.
In a letter to their customers, CUC stated that it had provided the commission with a detailed reply to its concern in the beginning of March and has additionally taken numerous improvement measures. However, they did not address the allegations made against them.
Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are hubs of organic fraud
The five countries concerned are renowned as hot spots for organic fraud for organic grain and oilseed for years. That is why some of them are subject to stricter control regulations intended to ensure the products’ traceability back to the farms. This does not always work out, as a report by the EU auditors showed a few weeks ago. The reports talks about a large Turkish company “with 10 production units and 15 processing units in Turkey, Ethiopia, Kirghizstan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.”
The auditors requested the most recent inspection report for this company and all its plants from the control body. They received an eight-page report in which “basic information was missing from this 8-page report, such as the dates of the visits to the different units, the nature of the actual checks carried out in each of the different units.”
One of the biggest customers of CUC is the well-known Turkish agricultural trader Tiryaki. It is not clear whether the responsible control body in that case was CUC, and whether this was the reason for the licence withdrawal. However, if it wasn’t, it is likely that another control body will soon lose its approval.
127,000 tons of organic food from the Emirates – at least on paper
The mentioning of the UAE in this context is particularly striking. It is not so much organic camel milk that is certified there – in fact about 3.9% of all organic food imports of in the EU are transacted through the UAE. According to EU statistics, this amounted to about 127,000 tons of organic food in 2018, consisting mainly of wheat, oilseeds and other cereals. It is likely that the larger share of the food produce is not shipped via the UAE ports (this would be quite a detour).
Instead, this process is mainly about cash flows and trading companies registered in the UAE. In reality, most of the goods are shipped via Turkey. From there, 264,000 tons of organic products arrived in the EU in 2018. We are not talking figs, apricots and hazelnuts here, but wheat, other cereals and oilseeds. These account for over half of Turkey’s imports to the EU.
In addition to the EU, large quantities of organic food stocks with questionable organic status are shipped from Turkey and the UAE to the USA. This was uncovered in 2018 by the Cornucopia Institute. In its report, it named Tiryaki as the most important trader, mentioning that the company had changed control bodies in order to pre-empt investigations and had now signed with the Dutch CUC. Previously, CUC had already certified another dealer involved in the 2017 US organic fraud case.
Why are only five countries being deprived?
The recognition withdrawal for five countries automatically raises the question as to why the CUC is still authorised to award organic certifications in around 125 other third party countries. This is what the German newspaper tazasked the EU commission – without getting an answer. The CUC also left the taz request for a statement unanswered. Based on the motto that fish rots from the head down, it can be assumed that the problems at CUC don’t lie only in the local certification offices, but stem from the Dutch headquarters. Only last year, the EU auditors heavily criticized CUC’s work in Sri Lanka.
So what will happen to the companies certified by CUC in these five countries and their deliveries? The regulation will come into force on April 8th; until then CUC can still issue certificates for deliveries that are not yet underway, as reported by the British Soil Association. This further facilitates frauds, as the certificates (or fakes) in question will no longer be verifiable when they reach the EU border in May or June. This is because the issuing control body will no longer be responsible and no new one could have inspected the company yet.
Starting April 9th, the companies concerned will need to find a new control and certification authority if they want to continue delivering food produce to the EU. CUC notified his customers that it was cooperating with several other control bodies to facilitate a smooth transition. In addition, every customer is free to look for a new certifier himself. CUC also announced that it would reapply for recognition in the five countries.
US Organic Trade Association cautions against redirected fraud goods
Meanwhile, the taz reports that US Organic Trade Association warned its members of redirected fraud good deliveries to the US following the licence withdrawal for the CUC. From an email to its members available to the taz, the Organic Trade Association was quoted saying that there are rumours about large quantities of sunflower seeds, linseeds and maize that has been redirected from the EU to the USA. There, the goods don’t need a certification following the EU-Eco-Regulation, but one following the US NOP standard – issued by CUC.