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Food safety in the EU

The EU's food safety policy aims to guarantee

  1. safe, nutritious food & animal feed
  2. a high level of animal health, welfare & plant protection
  3. sufficient transparent information about the origin, content/labelling & use of food.

People harvesting food © Corbis

Imported or homegrown, food must meet high EU standards.

EU food policy has 3 cornerstones:

  • comprehensive legislation on food & animal feed safety & food hygiene
  • sound scientific advice on which to base decisions
  • enforcement & control.

Where specific consumer protection is justified, there may be special measures governing

  • use of pesticides, food supplements, colourings, antibiotics or hormones
  • food additives such as preservatives & flavourings
  • products in contact with foodstuffs, e.g. plastic packaging
  • labelling of ingredients that may cause allergies & health claims such as ‘low-fat’ and ‘high-fibre’.

Accommodating diversity on the EU food market

The EU takes great care to ensure that traditional foods are not forced off the market by its food standards, that innovation is not stifled, and that quality does not suffer.

When new members join the EU (and hence the single market), transitional measures may be needed to give them time to catch up with the EU's high food safety standards. In the meantime, they are not allowed to export foodstuffs that do not meet those standards.

As regards foods involving genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs), cloning and nanotechnology ('novel foods'), the Commission favours responsible innovation. This gives EU citizens the best guarantee of safety and the strongest impetus for economic growth.

Brown dog (dachshund) holding passport in mouth.

He can have his own passport and travel with you.

Keeping animals safe

Animals can also be moved freely throughout the EU. But the health and welfare standards that apply on the farm must also be met during transport. When there are outbreaks of animal diseases, the EU has mechanisms and procedures in place to act swiftly and ban products if necessary.

EU 'pet passports' enable people to take their pets (cats, dogs and ferrets) with them when they travel. However, to prevent diseases spreading, precautions apply to pets just as they do to other animals.

Keeping plants healthy

All plants and plant material can be moved throughout the EU, as long as they are pest-free. Screening imported plant material and monitoring EU territory helps detect new pests at an early stage.

This means preventive action can be taken, thus avoiding curative measures such as the use of pesticides. Plant passports for young trees show they were grown under healthy conditions.

Early warning system

The EU operates a rapid early warning system – RASFF - to protect people from food that does not comply with European food safety rules. This system also spots whether foodstuffs contain banned substances or excessive amounts of high-risk substances, such as residues of veterinary medicines in meat or carcinogenic colourings in food.

When a threat is spotted, alerts go out across the EU. Blocking a single batch may be all that is needed, but all shipments of a particular product from a farm, factory or port of entry will be stopped if necessary. Products already in warehouses and shops may be recalled.

Traceability & risk management

Whenever significant outbreaks of animal disease or food poisoning affect European consumers, EU authorities can trace the movement of food products all the way back up the production chain – whether live animals, animal-based products or plants are involved.

These traceability and risk-management functions are provided by TRACES (Trade Control and Expert System), an electronic system of border controls and certification for traded goods.

Basing decisions on sound science

Science underpins EU food safety policy. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provides the European Commission and EU countries with independent scientific advice when laws are being drafted and when policymakers are dealing with a food safety scare.

The Commission applies the precautionary principle - it acts immediately if scientists say there is even a potential danger.

Enforcement & control

The Commission enforces EU food law by

  • checking that all EU countries incorporate EU legislation into their national law and implement it
  • having its Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) conduct on-the-spot inspections both within and outside the EU.

The Food and Veterinary Office inspects individual food production plants. However, its main task is to check that EU and non-EU governments alike have the mechanisms needed to ensure that their own food producers meet the EU’s high food-safety standards. Since 2013, its activities have expanded to include medical devices.


Food safety

Updated in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series




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