EU’s new draft food law weak on traceability, activists warn

There are European and national rules for our food – but it difficult to take legal action in cases of fraud. [Margouillat photo/ Shutterstock]

Insecticides in eggs, salmonella in baby milk – how can major food scandals continue to occur, despite strict EU rules? The EU is currently revising its food law but for consumer protection campaigners, the proposals do not go far enough to ensure full traceability. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Lasagne was all over the news five years ago. More than 750 tonnes of cheap horse meat was processed by manufacturers into their products and distributed across Europe. There was considerable indignation – and not just among fans of horses.

Nevertheless, food authorities never revealed the names of the products concerned. This is because of gaps in the EU’s food law regulation, says consumer organisation Foodwatch. Accordingly, if a product is not dangerous to health but could severely harm the company’s reputation, the competent authorities should not expose the traders to the public.

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In a report published last week, Foodwatch highlighted the gaps in EU food law. The organisation concluded that the EU does not meet its own precautionary principle and the limits for additives and pesticides are too relaxed from a scientific and health point of view.

The publication date was no coincidence. Currently, the EU is revising its General Food Law Regulation, established in 2002, when mad cow disease (BSE) was still rampaging in Europe. As part of an overhaul of its legislative texts to make them slimmer and more practical, the Commission presented a new version of its food law in April 2018.

The Commission believes that the previous EU food law does not contain any systemic flaws because EU standards are effectively protected. Moreover, authorities failing in their inspection obligations are reportedly the exception.

Nevertheless, the regulation should be revised, particularly with respect to a more transparent risk assessment of substances which are potentially dangerous to health.

With this step, the EU would like to reach out to a citizens’ initiative from 2017, in which more than one million EU citizens demanded to have glimpses into scientific studies which classified the herbicide glyphosate as being safe.

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But a little more transparency is far from sufficient, said consumer protection campaigners from Foodwatch. They are calling for the EU’s general food law to be significantly expanded in order to demonstrate complete product traceability through the food chain. EU law already stipulates this but, allegedly, authorities do not implement the existing legislation.

“With every new food scandal, it transpires that the companies often do not even know where exactly their food comes from. The authorities tolerate this. They have to be sanctioned for this. The [German] federal government has to ensure that the principle of traceability is respected, but it is simply ignored,” said Lena Blanken, economist and co-author of the study.

The consumer protection campaigners also see a clear need to catch up with respect to fraud. Fraudulent labelling is practised too often, for example, if there are no lemons in lemonade – or, even worse, lasagne contains horse meat.

“We are calling for there to be an obligation for authorities to disclose when there is fraud. The food law cannot protect the interest of businesses, where these are weighed against consumers’ rights and protected in the case of fraud,” Blanken said.

The fact that manufacturers can remain hidden in cases of fraud is a credit to the powerful food lobby in Brussels. Its umbrella organisation FoodDrinkEurope responded to EURACTIV Germany’s request for comment in a written statement, saying that the EU’s General Food Law Regulation worked well and there were also no issues with checks carried out by local authorities, whose work was supported.

However, it said that fraud was a growing problem. “Food fraud is an unacceptable criminal act and the food industry distances itself from any such activity.”

In order the strengthen consumers’ rights in food scandals, Foodwatch is calling for the extension rights to bring legal action. Currently, these rights are limited because it is difficult to prove the connection between a harmful foodstuff that has been consumed and damage to health.

In cases of fraud, it is also not possible to get very far, at least in Germany. People who bring an action against lemonade containing no lemons will be reimbursed the purchase price at most, explained Blanken.

“The opportunities to take legal action in the food sector are developing virtually no preventive effect because there is in principle no possibility for sanctions,” said Blanken.

Rather than use model actions for declaratory judgement, which has been permissible since November and is expected to be used in the diesel scandal, consumer protection campaigners are calling for the opportunity to take collective action against businesses and authorities if they do not fulfil their legal obligations. This possibility already exists in environmental law.

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FoodDrinkEurope does not mention the need for more rights to bring legal action and instead emphasises that businesses also need to be protected in cases of fraud. This is because consumer confidence is lost and this harms the entire supply chain.

Moreover, the organisation points to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which reports the foodstuff concerned to all authorities and also has a platform for consumers.

With its report, Foodwatch has made a clear appeal to the German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner. It says that she should work at the European level to ensure that the General Food Law Regulation is strengthened.

“If the responsible minister is not going about any substantial reform of food law, she is not doing her job,” said Martin Rücker, managing director at Foodwatch Germany. “By refraining from eliminating the clear shortcomings and weaknesses in the legislation, Julia Klöckner is substantially contributing to the next food scandal.”

The extent to which Germany will influence the new food law will be evident when the European Parliament votes on this issue in late November and enters into negotiations with the member states.

Currently, the ENVI (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) Committee is still working through the 539 proposed amendments to the Commission’s proposal.

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