Following the recent dioxin crisis, 150 poultry farms in Germany are now being investigated by health officials on suspicion of flouting the rules for free-range egg production.

Prosecutors in the northern city of Oldenburg claim to have evidence that poultry farmers, including organic producers, had systematically violated rules for the production of free-range eggs over a number of years, according to reports in Poultry World’s sister magazine, World Poultry.

To be able to sell products as “free-range”, regulations stipulate a minimum of 4m sq for each animal on a poultry farm. It has now emerged that several farmers kept more birds than permitted, but still sold their eggs for a higher price due to their free-range status.

The new agriculture minister of Lower Saxony, Christian Meyer of the environmentalist Green Party, said that investigations had begun in 2011, but more cases have since come to light. “We suspect there has been systematic fraud on a large scale and that is a serious crime,” said Mr Meyer.

Records show that controls have long been lacking, with health officials often relying solely on written information submitted by the farmers, instead of actual spot checks on site.

About 150 farms in Lower Saxony and 50 more in other German states are now under scrutiny. In case of wrongdoing, perpetrators could face hefty fines or even prison sentences.

“If the accusations turn out to be true, then we are talking of fraud on a grand scale; fraud against consumers, but also fraud against many organic farmers in Germany who work honestly,” said German farm minister Ilse Aigner.

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