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European Commission proposes new food and feed controls with teeth

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The European Commission has adopted its proposal for a Regulation on official food and feed controls. The proposed Regulation will streamline and reinforce the existing control system with added bite, consisting of stricter enforcement mechanisms.

The proposal aims to cure weaknesses in current legislation by improving the efficiency of control services performed by both Member States and the Commission. It defines tougher enforcement measures, including criminal sanctions. The proposal also creates a framework to support developing countries in meeting EU import requirements and provides for a financial framework to organise activities that enhance food and feed safety.

David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, stressed the importance of the proposal, saying: "The Regulation on official food and feed controls is one of the main objectives I promised to deliver on. It will streamline previously weak and scattered controls and strengthen consumer protection by giving both Member States and the Commission tougher enforcement tools. Ultimately, the Regulation will significantly improve our ability to manage the food and feed chain, making it possible to provide ever safer food for Europe's consumers."

A recent Eurobarometer opinion poll showed that 90% of EU consumers want the Commission to work to "ensure that agricultural products are healthy and safe". The proposal on food and feed controls, one of the key follow-up measures announced in the White Paper on Food Safety, works towards this goal.

Harmonised controls in EU Member States audited by the Commission
Controls of food and feed are and will continue to be primarily a task for Member States. By introducing performance criteria for competent authorities and a harmonised EU-wide approach to the design and development of control systems in the Member States, the proposed Regulation will however reinforce the verification of compliance with food and feed law at all stages of production, processing and distribution. This includes the introduction of management principles (documented control procedures and internal audits) and stricter rules on the accreditation of laboratories. National control plans with specific operational criteria on elements like staff, training and documented control procedures will have to be established. Audits by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) will evaluate performance against these control plans. In addition to current requirements for contingency plans in the feed and veterinary sectors, contingency plans for food crises must also be established and staff suitably trained to implement these plans.

The proposal establishes a common regime for controls on food and feed imports, basing the control frequency on risk. This means that for products that are known to present a particular risk, the sampling frequency at import may be more stringent than for products with a lower risk profile. Currently, uniform import procedures exist mainly for food and feed of animal origin.

The proposal also allows for the possibility of delegating specific defined control tasks to non-governmental control bodies, for example delegating the examination of official samples to defined and authorised laboratories. Criteria for analysis and accreditation of official laboratories currently exist only for food and feed. The proposal extends these to the veterinary sector.

Where the results of official controls require action by more than one EU Member State the Regulation provides for administrative assistance and co-operation between the relevant competent authorities.

The EU's role will continue to consist of audits by the FVO, verifying the efficiency of the control systems in the Member States and auditing the compliance or equivalence of third country legislation and control systems with EU rules. The main development in the FVO's role will be a move away from focusing on individual production establishments towards evaluating the overall operation of national control systems. Where there are specific problems to address, the FVO will inspect these situations in addition to the general audit, as is currently the practice. The proposal extends the FVO's role in third countries, so that inspections can be carried out in the food and plant health sectors in addition to current feed and veterinary inspections.

Enforcement measures
The proposal provides for administrative enforcement measures for Member States to address particular problems of non-compliance. It introduces criminal sanctions where serious offences against EU feed and food law are committed intentionally or through gross negligence. A list of offences is included. For example, the illegal handling and placing on the market of specified risk materials would be classified as a criminal offence.

The proposal also provides for enforcement measures at EU level. Where the Commission has proof that a Member State's control system is inadequate, the Regulation would allow the Commission to take interim measures to ensure the protection of human health, animal health, animal welfare and the environment. These measures would be taken in co-operation with the Member States within the Standing Committee, or in serious cases on the Commission's own initiative. These measures include suspending the right to place food and feed on the market.

Support for developing countries
Third countries exporting to the EU are already now required to present guarantees that products exported to EU Member States meet EU standards. The proposal introduces a number of activities, particularly training and twinning projects, to make it easier for developing countries to implement EU requirements for food and feed controls. These activities will be organized as part of the external aid programs and will primarily focus on the countries listed by the Development Aid Committee of the OECD.

The financial impact
The proposal includes a number of activities that require a financial input from the EU. These include the designation of EU reference laboratories, the organization of workshops, the participation of national experts in FVO missions and the standardization of methods of analysis.

Adoption of the proposal is subject to co-decision. It will now be submitted to the European Parliament and the Council for approval. Since it contains important elements of consumer protection, it is hoped that the proposal can be adopted quickly.
Several Directives that are currently in place will be repealed and replaced by the provisions of the new Regulation:
· The implementing rules on sampling and analysis for the official control of feedingstuffs (Council Directive 70/373/EEC);
· Rules on official inspections in the field of animal nutrition (Council Directive 95/53/EEC)
· Rules on the Official Control of Foodstuffs (Council Directives 89/379/EEC and 93/99/EC).

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