Falling short: EU audit report reveals seriously overstretched food safety system

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16 Jan 2019 --- A new European Court of Auditors report has stressed that although the EU food safety system for protecting consumers from chemical hazards in food is soundly based and respected worldwide, it is falling seriously short. This is because the system is vastly overstretched, with the European Commission (EC) and member states struggling to implement the system fully.

The legal framework governing chemicals in food, feed and plants and live animals remains a work in progress, according to auditors, and has not yet been implemented to the level envisaged in EU laws governing food production. 

Additionally, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which provides scientific advice to inform European policymaking, suffers backlogs in its work in connection with chemicals. This affects the proper functioning of parts of the system and the sustainability of the model as a whole.

Speaking with FoodIngredientsFirst, Janusz Wojciechowski, Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report, details some of the consequences of the system being overstretched.

“Although we clearly underline we have a very good and ambitious model in Europe, we point out that such ambitious models also mean an investment of many resources for its implementation and warn that these resources are not unlimited,” he says. 

“To overcome this, we recommend assessing potential changes in EU law, taking into account the actual capacity to apply the model. In addition, we recommend identifying a way forward towards a greater complementarity between the private and the public sector, which is one of the key factors ensuring the EU model remains credible and sustainable.”

“The EC has accepted these recommendations, as well as all the others we have made in the report. We now expect a political discussion to take place at Parliament and Council, as well as Commission’s action to remedy this weakness.”

One of the concrete consequences of the system being overstretched is that some groups of substances (such as pesticides) are much more frequently checked than others (additives, for example) without a clear reasoning why this is so, explains Wojciechowski. In addition, enforcement actions are not always properly applied, he says. 

Checks by public bodies can only ever make up a small proportion of all checks carried out, according to the auditors, and the EU model can best remain credible if public- and private-sector control systems complement each other. However, synergies between the two have only just started to be explored.

Some member states’ controls cover certain chemicals more frequently than others and their legal frameworks are so extensive that public authorities find it difficult to fulfil all their responsibilities.

Backlogs

A consequence at the EU level is that EFSA suffers backlogs while the pressure to approve new substances increasingly mounts, notes Wojciechowski. 

“In the area of additives, for example, the EU established a Union list of additives authorized for use in foods in 2011. Currently, the list contains 334 food additives. However, the legislator in 2008 deemed a mandatory re-evaluation necessary for 316 of these additives in order to decide whether or not to keep them on the list. Until August 2018, 175 additives had been re-evaluated.”

The legal deadline to complete the re-evaluation program is the end of 2020, stresses Wojciechowski, but this may be affected by the current EFSA workload.

“Another example would be that for food enzymes, the 2008 Regulation requires the EU to draw up a list of authorized food enzymes. However, ten years have passed and the Commission has not yet drawn up any such list.”

“Member States could have their own provisions, but in reality they rarely do. As a result, some of the substances which the EU law promises to be under control are actually not fully regulated and therefore cannot be checked. In such cases, enforcement cannot take place either.”

Food safety is a high priority for the EU with the EU’s food safety policy founded on the primary responsibility of private operators, aiming to keep people safe from illness caused by the food they eat. Food safety potentially affects the health of all citizens and is closely linked both to ensuring free movement of food and animal feed within the EU and facilitating global trade of safe feed and food. 

European food law aims to “guarantee a high level of protection of human life and health” and the Commission emphasizes the importance of the policy, stating that “guaranteeing that food sold in the EU remains safe is at the center of a Europe that protects.” 

However, the findings of the just-released report – Chemical hazards in our food: EU food safety policy protects us but faces challenges – paints a picture of the difficulties and challenges experienced across the EU in terms of implementing the model laid down in food safety policy. 

By Gaynor Selby

To contact our editorial team please email us at editorial@cnsmedia.com

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