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Organic food fraud detectable by isotope testing, shows new paper

The paper finds that a "considerable amount" of organic sunflower seeds used in European farming (as animal feed) are grown with synthetic fertilisers

A new paper evaluating organic sunflower seed fertilisation has shown isotope testing is a useful tool for detecting organic food fraud.

With the increased demand for organic food, issues surrounding food fraud are a big concern, especially for those in agriculture who rely on organic feed imports.

The paper, “Evaluation of organic sunflower fertilization using δ15N values” (Joergensen. R.G, Tonecea. I, Boner. M, Heß. J, 2018), a collaboration between the University of Kassel, NARDI Fundulea, and Agroisolab GmbH, studies the effects of different types of fertilisation on nitrogen in sunflower crops by using stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA). The study aimed to use the nitrogen isotope ratios as an indication of synthetic fertilisers, which are not allowed in organic farming by EU regulation 834/2007, and are a suggestion that fraud may be taking place.

Agroisolab GmbH, experts in using stable isotope analysis to verify the origin of produce, carried out the scientific tests to examine the nitrogen ratios of the sunflowers. The study found that “considerable amounts” of certificated organic sunflower seeds used in northern Europe for livestock feed are grown with synthetic fertilisers.

The study also found evidence of synthetic fertilisation on the test farms, which the farm managers admitted to when confronted.

According to the study, organic fraud using synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is a problem that affects imports from southeast Europe and is a ‘common practice’ in China. Because sunflower seeds are a popular component of the northern European organic feed industry, there is a significant risk that farmers are using this “organic” imported seed – and paying the increased cost – while being unaware of the fraud taking place.

Organic sunflower products have been previously subject to large-scale fraud, often involving organised crime. Between December 2014 and February 2015, 15,000 tonnes of sunflower used for organic feed were detected as part of the organic control system (ANTI FRAUD WORKSHOP: “Improving Integrity of Organic Arable Production in Ukraine” Kyiv, 24-25 September 2015.). Organic animals must eat a diet that is at least 95% organic and the fraudulent certification of feed crops affects their status too.

Commenting on the findings, Charlie Watkinson, Operations Manager at Agroisolab UK, said: “The paper shows the validity of the nitrogen isotope test at detecting crops that have been grown with non-allowed synthetic fertilisers.

“Organic farming is a certification-based process that relies on the constant vigilance of auditors and certification bodies. However, these people cannot be everywhere at once, and the fraudsters know this.

“Analytical testing helps support the work of auditors and direct investigations to help ensure that honest organic farmers are not being ripped off at the mercy of chancers.”

Pesticide residue analysis is commonly used to check organic crops. However, when organic crops are found to have residues of non-permitted pesticides, this is often dismissed as a result of ‘over-spray’ from nearby conventional farms. Nitrogen isotope analysis can provide further supporting evidence to show whether or not this is true, or if a product is actually a conventional product grown with synthetic fertilisers.

Stable isotope technology uses the elements – isotopes – which are naturally present in products to check organic crops have been fertilised with fertilisers that are the products of biomass, plant or animal, and additionally is used to verify the origin of products such as timber, meat and eggs.

Stable isotope analysis is an established forensic technique that first saw use in the 1950’s but has seen a significant increase in use by the agri-food industry in the last 10 years. As fertilisers are effectively a ‘feed’ for a plant, the underlying science is very well established.

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