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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Controlling the Food and Feed Chain
12th Annual Food Law Conference
Brussels, 26 June 2003
It is a great pleasure for me to be invited once again to address your annual conference.
I have been asked to speak today on the subject of “controlling the food and feed chain”. As you may know, the Commission adopted a proposal for a Regulation on official food and feed controls in February, and it has now started the legislative process in the Council and the European Parliament.
But before I turn to my main topic allow me first to provide a brief update of the progress of our ambitious plans as outlined in the White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000 to transform the European Food Safety system into a modern, state of the art system fit for the demands of the 21st century.
It is now three and a half years since the White Paper was published. I am pleased to say that the new legislative framework is nearing completion. Those of you suffering from “legislation fatigue” can take heart that the end is now in sight.
The landmark Regulation laying down the general principles of food law, encompassing the farm to fork approach, and providing the legal basis for the creation of the European Food Safety Authority came into force in January of last year.
And EFSA itself is now up and running, gathering pace and set to take on the full range of its responsibilities later this year. Geoffrey Podger will set out his vision for the Authority later on this morning.
In addition to the general food law, new carefully targeted legislation is now force, or expected to come into force soon, covering a whole raft of food safety issues.
Measures on TSEs, animal by-products, labelling of feed, undesirable substances in feed, pesticides, food supplements and the withdrawal of antibiotics have all been introduced.
And the food hygiene package, which featured in my address to this conference last year, is approaching the final stages of the legislative process.
I should also mention another current initiative feed hygiene. I would recall that feed contamination was at the root of many recent food crises. The hygienic handling and production of feed is absolutely vital to ensure safe food.
The recently adopted feed hygiene proposal is a key piece in the puzzle to complete the legislative framework of our 'farm to fork' approach to food safety.
It will replace existing legislation on the approval and registration of establishments and intermediaries in the animal feed sector to ensure that proper feed hygiene is applied at all stages of production and use including primary production.
So much for the legislation. This is, of course, only one side of the coin. I have said many times before that legislation, however finely crafted, is of little practical use if it is not matched by effective and rigorous enforcement.
I am pleased to say that our systems of monitoring, control and alert have improved significantly over recent years. But there is certainly room for further improvement.
I have long believed that the Community's systems of official controls for food and feed are far from sufficient to meet today's demands.
Our current systems are patchy and fragmented. They lack overall coherency and synergy. The responsibilities of Member States and the Commission are not set out with sufficient clarity and precision. And our trading partners, especially developing countries, do not always understand our requirements or the way in which they are applied.
My proposal to overhaul the entire framework for official food and feed controls is designed to put matters on a sound footing for the next decade and beyond.
Its origins go back to the seminal White Paper on food safety, which stated:
We have risen to this challenge by proposing a comprehensive text that would introduce common principles on official controls for all food and feed at all stages of the food and feed chain.
The aim and scope of the OFFC proposal
The fundamental purpose of official controls is to verify that food law and feed laws are being adhered to by food and feed business operators and by the Member States.
This includes all the laws, regulations and administrative provisions governing both food and feed at any stage of the food and feed chain.
It covers not only food and feed safety issues such as feed and food hygiene, zoonoses, animal by-products, residues in food, feed and food additives, but also certain quality and compositional requirements as well as issues on consumer information such as labelling requirements.
The organisation of national control systems
The proposal uses the term “control systems” in order to emphasise that official controls carried out by the Member States must be part a coherent set of measures rather than isolated control activities developed independently.
For that purpose, Member States need to ensure that their systems are developed in accordance with a number of common principles set out in my proposal.
The organisation of import controls
The proposal covers imports as well as EU-produced food and feed. Import controls for food and feed of animal origin are already covered by current EU veterinary legislation. The proposal also includes a control system for food and feed of non-animal origin. It thus fills in an important gap of the current food safety rules and would be based on risk.
Higher risk products would, therefore, be submitted to more intensive controls at the external borders of the Community. Where there is no evidence of an increased risk, random checks at any place of the food chain after importation would suffice.
National control plans and Community audits in the Member States
The proposal would introduce a requirement for Member States to establish control plans. These plans will be designed to contain information on the control systems applied by the Member States.
This must enable the Commission to obtain a global overview of the organisation of official controls in each Member State. Such an overview is not currently available and this is a significant shortcoming.
These control plans will serve as a basis for the Food and Veterinary Office to carry out a general audit of the control activities of each Member State.
This general audit may be supplemented by further audits or inspections of specific sectors or particular critical points, in particular where the general audit demonstrates that there are weaknesses in national control systems.
Control plans for third countries and audits in third countries
The European Union imports feed, food, plants and animals from over 200 countries around the world. To ensure that supplies from third countries are of an equivalent safety level is a major responsibility for the Community and for the Commission in particular.
Given the limits on resources, significant prioritisation is needed. This will be facilitated by a more integrated approach to controls under which third countries would be audited on the basis of control plans similar to those foreseen for the Member States.
In proposing such a system I have taken particular care to ensure that the requirement for third countries to have a control plan available is consistent with the World Trade Organisation's Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement.
Support for developing countries
I do however realise that a system requiring third countries to have a control plan may pose a heavy burden on developing countries.
Experience has shown that competent authorities in some of the less developed countries can face major difficulties in organising their control systems in a manner that is sufficient to meet Community standards.
At the same time the products in question may often be one of the few sources of foreign revenue available to them and an import ban often has very serious economic consequences, not just for the establishments in question, but for the country as a whole.
I am therefore very pleased that my proposals contain actions to provide assistance to developing countries in such circumstances whilst at the same time ensuring that consumer health protection will not be compromised.
For example, additional assistance could be given through Community aid and training programmes to third countries in order to provide guidance on the best methods of achieving Community standards and to identify particular control solutions that more precisely reflect the level of risk posed by particular products.
Corrective measures and sanctions
Where official controls indicate non-compliance with food law and feed law, Member States must take all measures necessary to guarantee the application and effectiveness of Community law. This is a basic requirement laid down in Article 10 of the EC Treaty. Such measures include effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties.
Corrective measures and sanctions are therefore an integral part of any control system, and the proposal would be incomplete if such measures were omitted.
In addition to administrative enforcement measures, the proposal introduces for the first time in Community feed and food law the principle of criminal sanctions. A similar approach has been taken in other sectors, for example in proposals for environmental legislation.
The controls proposal would require Member States to initiate criminal procedures for certain offences committed either intentionally or through serious negligence. Such offences include activities that could have serious consequences for animal or human health for example the illegal placing on the market of BSE risk materials or the illegal use of unauthorised substances.
I am sure you would agree that these are serious offences. Criminal sanctions would have a strong deterrent effect and also ensure that “the punishment fits the crime”.
My primary objective in presenting this proposal is to ensure a high level of protection for consumers. I believe that this will be met. Once in force we will have the most comprehensive and complete set of control requirements in the world.
But it would be wrong to assume that the legitimate rights of the food and feed business operators have been overlooked in our quest for ever-safer food.
The proposal includes, for example, confirmation of the right of appeal against decisions taken by the competent authority, as well as the possibility for operators to demand a second assessment in case of doubt over the result of a sample analysis.
The proposal also takes fully into account the need for transparency. The results of controls carried out by the Member States and by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office would be made public, continuing the practice of openness that has characterised the EU's approach to food safety in recent years.
Finally, the proposal should be seen as a framework that will allow the further development of the control systems in Europe. Much work will need to follow for example implementing decisions to establish uniform methods for sampling and analysis, and for the elaboration of guidelines to assist Member States and third countries to draw up control plans.
An effective range of food safety legislation, the European Food Safety Authority and a new approach to official controls these are the three essential elements of our new food safety system.
Completion of this framework is now within sight. We set out to make the European food supply the safest in the world and that is precisely what we are on course to deliver.