In the wake of the horsemeat scandal which rocked Europe’s food industry, the European Commission has proposed measures to tighten controls on the health of animals and plants entering the European food chain.
Tonio Borg, the health and consumer policy commissioner, today (6 May) announced a legislative package which aims to prevent the spread of communicable animal-based diseases and foreign pests to European crops.
The rules aim to ensure authorities in member states comply with the European Union food safety legislation and carry out sufficient controls. The EU executive would also require national authorities to carry out anti-fraud checks and impose strong financial penalties on food operators which committed fraud or failed to comply with the laws.
‘Smarter rules for safer food’
Borg claimed that Europe had the highest food safety standards in the world but that “the recent horsemeat scandal has shown that there is room for improvement, even if no health risk emerged.”
“Today’s package of reforms comes at an opportune moment as it shows that the system can respond to challenges; it also takes on board some of the lessons learned. In a nutshell, the package aims to provide smarter rules for safer food,” he told reporters.
In recent weeks, the EU has taken a hard line on food safety after studies showed that consumer confidence in the food industry dipped in the wake of the horsemeat scandal. Extra funding has been found in the next EU long-term budget for national food surveillance programmes, the Pesticide Action Network says.
The legislative package, following European Parliament and Council approval, will cut down existing food safety laws in five pieces of legislation to ease compliance with controls, inspections and tests.
The rules also include a prevention-based principle governing animal health in a drive to avert the mass culling of potentially-infected animals, such as in recent cases involving avian and swine flu.
Christian Verschueren, director-general of the association EuroCommerce, said: “Assuring consumer trust in the food that they eat is an absolute priority for the commerce sector. Quality sourcing practices, good hygiene standards and regular controls are consistently and effectively being implemented by many companies. Imposing additional compliance costs will not, de facto, improve food safety levels; it also overlooks the good practices already in place.”
Monique Goyens, director-general of consumer organisation BEUC, said: “Given the current lack of confidence in food manufacturers, it is a great step to see food fraud finally feature highly on the EU agenda. Resources will be needed to enforce these new laws while the penalties for breaches demand robust minimum thresholds.
"It is crucial that Europe coordinates its food controls, after all it is a single European food market. That is the only way to restore and maintain consumer confidence, which keeps being undermined in recent months.”
Francois Veillerette, president of Pesticide Action Network Europe, an environmental NGO, voiced scepticism about the proposed reform.
“As the reform proposal stands, the EU will first pay direct payments to farmers growing monoculture maize as part of the CAP payments, and now we also wish to compensate them in case of a potential pest attack. Would it not be smarter for both the environment, public health as well as the whole society, if the farmers produced in the first place in a different way?”
The horsemeat scandal broke when Swedish frozen-food company Findus withdrew all its beef lasagna ready meals from supermarkets after tests revealed they contained up to 100% horsemeat.
The scandal prompted calls from a number of members of the European Parliament for stronger and more transparent food safety legislation.
The agri-food industry is the second largest economic sector in the EU, employing over 48 million people and is worth some €750 billion a year. The value of crops grown in the EU is €205 billion annually.
- 2016: New rules expected to enter into force following approval of the European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers.