When is an organic egg not an organic egg?

The systems for producing some organic eggs do not quite match up with what has been printed on their boxes.

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Europeans and food labeling just don't seem to go together well at the moment. Horse, pig and chicken have been sold under the now apparently catch-all term beef, and the latest mislabeling scandal to hit the headlines concerns eggs.

Unlike the beef/horsemeat saga, these eggs really are hen eggs, but the method of producing them does not quite match up with what has been printed on their boxes.

German authorities have started investigations into allegations of fraud over the mislabeling of eggs as organic, when they were not produced on farms that meet the rules for organic production. As if the European food industry does not already have enough to deal with trying to save its reputation and carrying out additional meat testing, if current allegations prove to be true, then "fraud on a grand scale" will have been uncovered. 

The investigations are into claims that hens are being kept in conditions that do not conform to organic regulations on some 150 farms, yet the eggs produced there are being labeled as organic. A further 50 farms are also under investigation. 

Germany has some 36.6 million laying hens, and over the last year or so, the number of organically kept layers has increased by 17 percent (although this figure should, perhaps, now be taken with a pinch of salt). For 2012, the country's Federal Statistics Office estimates that 10.6 billion eggs were produced, and that between 2010 and 2011 purchases of organic eggs increased by 30 percent, now accounting for some 10 percent of household egg purchases. 

With such strong consumer demand for organically produced eggs, the reasons behind the alleged mislabeling become clear. 

Farm Minister Ilse Aigner makes a good point, however, saying that mislabeling of eggs would be "fraud against consumers but also fraud against the many organic farmers in Germany who work honestly." The old saying is true: one bad egg can spoil things for everyone. 

It also seems that it is not simply German farmers that have been involved in this mislabeling; they have been working with suppliers in other countries. Sound familiar? 

And in terms of being an isolated incident, don't forget that the EU and U.S. agreed to recognize each other's organic rules, regulations and inspection systems as equivalent last year, so who knows how far those mislabeled eggs could be travelling. 

Part of the problem in this current issue is a lack of external inspection, with farmers being allowed to submit paperwork themselves saying that were abiding by the rules. It is worth thinking back, however, to 2010, when it emerged that a feed company in northern Germany had used dioxin-contaminated industrial fats in their feeds and almost 5,000 pig and poultry farms had to be closed as a result. The scandal resulted in revisions in the country's Food and Feed Code and guarantees of greater transparency for consumers. 

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