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Brussels, 2 October 1997

Product liability: Commission proposes to extend EU rules to primary agricultural products

A proposal to ensure people throughout the Single Market can seek compensation for damages caused by defective primary agricultural products (such as meat, cereals, fruit and vegetables) has just been put forward by the European Commission on the initiative of Single Market Commissioner Mario MONTI. The initiative takes the form of a proposal to include primary agricultural products in the scope of the EU's existing product liability Directive (85/374/EEC). The product liability Directive requires the producer/importer to pay compensation if there is a link between the damage and the defect, without a person having to prove negligence on the part of the producer/importer. The European Parliament's report on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) specifically requested the Commission to present such a proposal, which also features in the Action Plan for the Single Market (see IP/97/478).

"This proposal responds to people's legitimate consumer concerns about the safety of primary agricultural products within the Single Market", commented Mr MONTI, "notably following recent anxiety over BSE. It will provide an additional incentive for producers and importers of primary agricultural products throughout the Single Market to ensure product safety receives top priority and that existing standards and safeguards are adhered to strictly."

Strict liability

The new proposal would require primary agricultural products to be covered by the provisions of the product liability Directive, which already covers all other categories of products (included transformed agricultural products) manufactured or imported into the Single Market. The existing Directive has established a regime of strict liability. This provides that the producer/importer of a defective product, namely a product not providing the safety a person is entitled to expect, is responsible for paying damages as long as there is a link between the damage suffered and the defect. Under strict liability, it is not necessary to prove negligence or fault on the part of the producer/importer.

The proposal would contribute to ensuring a higher level of consumer protection by encouraging strict adherence to existing standards and safeguards and a responsible attitude on the part of producers/importers to the safety of primary agricultural products.

The Commission's original 1976 proposal would have required all Member States to include primary agricultural products in the scope of the Directive, but this requirement was dropped at the request of the European Parliament in its Opinion. Instead, the inclusion of primary agricultural products in the scope of the strict liability regime became optional for the Member States, and only Greece, Luxembourg, Sweden and Finland have taken up this option.

The new proposal would ensure that the strict liability regime applied to primary agricultural products in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries (the EU, plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein), thereby removing any potential distortions of competition within the Single Market arising from different liability regimes for primary agricultural products. It would also resolve difficulties that have sometimes arisen over the dividing line between transformed and primary agricultural products.

The Commission's 1995 report assessing the application of the product liability Directive (see IP/95/405) concluded that it had raised awareness of and emphasis on product safety and made it easier for an injured person to prove their case, without increasing the number of claims made or giving rise to large increases in insurance premiums. It is therefore unlikely that extending the Directive's scope to primary agricultural products would adversely affect the agricultural sector.

The proposal would come into effect once adopted by the European Parliament and the EU's Council of Ministers under the co-decision procedure. It would apply to primary agricultural products placed on the market after it is implemented (the Commission has proposed it should be by January 1999).

The Commission will consider whether to propose further amendments to the product liability Directive in the light of consultations with interested parties due to be launched shortly.

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