Europe’s food safety system ‘overstretched’, auditors say

An ECA source said that on several occasions that there were a very high number of substances to be tested and only a limited number of experts available to perform the tests. [Photo: Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The European Union’s food safety system is respected across the globe but it’s now “overstretched”, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) said in a report published on Tuesday (15 January), urging policymakers to bolster implementation capacity.

The new ECA report, which focused on chemicals, found that the implementation of EU laws on chemicals in food, feed, and plants has not reached the desired levels.

“The European Commission and the member states do not have the capacity to implement the system fully,” ECA said.

Auditors emphasised that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the EU’s Parma-based food safety watchdog, was not capable of delivering on increasing demands, resulting in delays.

“This affects the proper functioning of parts of the system and the sustainability of the model as a whole,” the report warned.

On several occasions, there were a very high number of substances to be tested and only a limited number of experts available to perform the tests, an ECA source said.

“The main problem is, thus, one of lack of resources. One of the solutions we recommend is, therefore, to improve the synergies between public and private sector laboratories,” the source said.

Janusz Wojciechowski, an ECA member responsible for the report, said “the current EU system faces a number of inconsistencies and challenges.”

Referring to a 2012 Ernst & Young survey, ECA noted that applications covered more than 60% of EFSA’s output, while more than one third of these applications concern new products.

“This stretches EFSA’s capacity and may entail devoting resources to assessments requested by industry,” the report said.

Commenting on the report, an EFSA spokesperson told EURACTIV it confirmed the resource constraints of the agency.

“This is a concern highlighted for several years and addressed by the European Commission in its proposal to amend the EU General Food Law,” the EFSA official said.

“The Court of Auditors’ report provides further context and clarity that can be used to inform the ongoing political discussions on this issue,” the EFSA spokesperson added.

As part of the review of the General Food Law, the European Commission proposed a significant budget increase of €62.5 million per year for EFSA.

According to the EU food safety watchdog, the new budget will increase the overall quality of expertise and safeguard the future sustainability of EFSA’s operations and risk assessment in Europe.

On 11 December, the European Parliament approved in Strasbourg the mandate to start the trilogue with EU ministers over the Commission’s proposed new rules for EFSA.

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