Much ado about nothing, but an official agency issues a correction

Amid reports of moldy yogurt and toxic honey, consumers were further confused recently by newspaper reports that seized upon a badly worded (but subsequently corrected) official announcement of a survey of organic products on the Greek market; the newspaper claimed that, according to the survey, nearly four in five organic products on sale were faulty, raising concern among the growing number of consumers turning to organic food. The Agricultural Development Ministry’s Organization for the Certification and Inspection of Agricultural Products (AGROCERT)’s original announcement (issued on March 22) said that in 126 inspections of stores around the country, 93 cases of organic products that infringed the regulations were found. In fact, most of these 93 violations had already been found by one of the agencies authorized to certify organic products and had lost their «organic» label. AGROCERT later issued another announcement clarifying the situation, but the incident did no service to the burgeoning organic food industry in Greece, according to producers. The Federation of Organic Farmers Unions of Greece pointed out that of the 93 infringements found by AGROCERT, 62 involved the discovery of traces of substances banned in organic farming, and 31 were cases where products had not been properly labeled. After several protests from producers’ and retailers’ organizations claiming the figures were misleading and incomplete, AGROCERT issued a statement the next day explaining that in inspections of 126 stores selling organic products, samples were taken of 378 products and, of these, 31 were found not to have been properly labeled. AGROCERT also pointing out that «in inspections carried by the approved organizations for the inspection and certification of organic products at 7,500 organic production and manufacturing units, there were only 62 instances in which traces were found of non-permissible substances, and which the organizations in question refused to approve sale. These products never reached the market.» AGROCERT «encouraged Greek consumers to have faith in organic products.» One of the country’s three approved certification bodies, DIO, said AGROCERT’s second statement presented a completely different picture than its initial announcement. «According to the corrected information AGROCERT included in today’s announcement, our assertion that the whole issue had been based on wrong information showed AGROCERT was incapable of managing statistical data. Along with the rash exploitation of the issue by sections of the media, particularly the story on the first page of Eleftherotypia titled ‘Four out of five organic products are fake,’ it discredited the entire organic farming industry,» DIO said in an announcement. «Organic farming represents just over 1 percent of the total in Greece. More inspections are made of organic products (in the field, on farms, of the final products, before they reach the stores) than of nearly all conventionally farmed products,» it added. Christos Karapanos of Vrosis Organic Products noted that AGROCERT’s initial statement did not refer to the type of violations, nor the level of banned substances found in the samples. «We all know that often small traces of banned substances are found in organic products that show a slight contamination from neighboring conventional farms, either via wind or water,» he said. «Meanwhile, AGROCERT does not say what it considers an organic product retail outlet, whether it includes only accredited stores or organic producers selling in street markets, or anyone who decides to call a product organic without having it approved by one of the certification agencies.» Effect on sales Despite the speedy clarifications, consumer confidence was no doubt shaken to some degree. Shoppers still skeptical about the veracity of claims that foods have been produced entirely organically, or about the inspection process itself, may have been persuaded that their doubts had a basis in fact. According to Margo Birbili, of the Biologikos Cosmos outlet on central Academias Street, this has not happened. «Sales of organic products have not been influenced. After all, the report was not negative, but erroneous,» Birbili told Kathimerini English Edition. It seems most regular customers at organic stores were not put off by the sensationalist headlines. Stamps of approval Organic products in Greece must bear the stamp of one of the following organizations, as set out in European Union document C354/29, of September 12, 2000: Organic Farming Association of Greece, 7 Paradeision, Galatsi, tel 210.238.7027. DIO, 38 Aristotelous, Athens, tel 210.822.4384. Physiologiki, 24 Plastira, Alexandria, Imathia, tel 23330.24440. AGROCERT, 45-47 Ithakis, Athens, tel 210.823.1277.

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