Berlin: Germany is hit by a new food scandal as authorities struggled to restore consumers` confidence in meat products shattered by the recent discovery of horse meat in thousands of ready meals sold across Europe labelled as beef.
Prosecutors in the north German city of Oldenburg said they are investigating allegations that more than 150 poultry farms in the state of Lower Saxony have defrauded consumers by marketing millions of mass-produced eggs as products of free-range or organic farming.
The investigations are based on information that for many years poultry farmers across northern Germany have systematically violated the rules for free-range and organic poultry farming by keeping too many chickens in their stalls than permitted and sold their eggs under the organic label for a higher price, according to chief prosecutor Roland Hermann.
It appears that this was a widespread practice among poultry farms in northern Germany, he said in a TV interview.
Investigators are trying to establish whether the poultry farms deliberately deceived the consumers by mislabelling their eggs and whether they violated the national food safety regulations and the laws on organic farming, Hermann said.
Around 50 poultry farms in three other German states as well as some companies operating in the Netherlands and Belgium also, are currently being investigated, media reports said.
Germany`s agriculture and consumer affairs minister Ilse Aigner said the information available so far pointed to a "large-scale deception of consumers". She urged the state governments to make sure that national and EU regulations concerning free-range and organic farming are strictly implemented.
Lower Saxony`s new agriculture minister Chrisitian Meyer said the state government is examining whether to withdraw the licences of the companies involved in the current investigations.
"There may be criminal forces behind this massive deception of consumers," he said in a tv interview.
Prosecutors said they believed that the poultry farms and other companies involved in the suspected fraud may have sold millions of eggs under the organic label, which they did not deserve.
Meanwhile, the Swedish furniture giant IKEA became the latest company to be caught up in Europe`s horse meat scandal.
It stopped the sale of its popular meatballs Kottbular at its retail outlets and restaurants in Germany and 23 other countries after horsemeat was detected in it by the authorities in the Czech Republic some days go, the company said in a statement.