‘Eco-friendly’ labels are often fake

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‘Eco-friendly’ labels are often fake

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A massive fraud in local governments’ certifications of supposedly eco-friendly food products was investigated and public servants indicted, the prosecution said yesterday.

The Seoul Western District Prosecutors’ Office yesterday announced the result of its investigation into alleged corruption in eco-friendly food product certifications. A 59-year-old deputy governor of Jangseong County in South Jeolla was indicted on charges of falsifying public records and dereliction of duty. Ten other people face prosecution in similiar schemes and all 11 are being detained until trials.

The prosecutors said it will press charges against 15 others without detaining them.

According to the prosecution, the deputy county governor, only identified by his surname Park, decided to falsify records of eco-friendly agricultural products from January to March because the South Jeolla Provincial Government uses the eco-friendly program as grounds for promotions. By colluding with a private certification board, Park certified 395 farmers as producers of eco-friendly products and paid the board 300 million won ($281,426) in return.

The prosecution said Park became aware that Jangseong County was at the bottom of the list of eco-friendly agricultural certifications in South Jeolla on Dec. 20, 2012. Within 10 days, he gave false certificates to 8 square kilometers (3.1 square miles) of the land inside the county. As a result, Jangseong won the eco-friendly agriculture award in 2012 and the county won 150 million won in prize money.

Park allegedly coerced civil servants in the county to forge the records. During this process, a farmer who used pesticides won an eco-friendly certificate.

In other cases, 10 middlemen and six certification boards were found to have issued false certificates to a total of 5,700 farmers around the country. They lied to the farmers saying they could receive free agricultural materials if they cooperated. As a result, false certificates were given to 63 square kilometers of farmland, 22 times the size of Yeouido.

According to the prosecution, the boards issued certificates without checking the farms. In some extreme cases, certificates were issued for reservoirs, roads and cemeteries, not farms.

With the frauds, the middlemen and certificate boards received a total of 3 billion won in subsidies from 29 local governments, the prosecution said.

In one of the cases, a 71-year-old operator of a certification board visited farmers in South Jeolla from December last year till April this year. He promised that the farmers wouldn’t be charged application fees for the certificates and 2,499 farmers signed up in his scheme. After issuing false certificates, the certification board operator received 750 million won from local governments in the area for his services.

The prosecution said the investigation found that about 700 million won worth of agricultural products with false certificates were already sold in the market. Some of them were sold to school cafeteria operators.

It also became clear that the number of certification boards mushroomed without proper oversight.

In January 2011, the agriculture ministry announced it would delegate certification operations for eco-friendly products to the private sector by the end of this year.

The number of private certification boards quickly increased. In 2007, there were 37 certification boards for eco-friendly food products, but the number went up to 76 over the last seven years.

The prosecution said it will inform the National Agricultural Products Quality Management Service of the boards that were involved in the alleged frauds. The relevant authorities were also asked to take back the money paid to certification boards.



BY MIM KYUNG-WON, SOHN GUK-HEE [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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