Foodwatch has described the European Commission’s claim that EU food law provides adequate protection from health risks as “detached from reality.”

The European consumer organization accused EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker of failing in health and consumer protection, citing incidents such as fipronil in eggs, Salmonella in Lactalis infant formula, and horse meat in beef products.

Europe is being hit again and again by food scandals and the commission has failed to effectively protect consumers, argued foodwatch in an open letter to Juncker.

The group said if the EU’s General Food Law Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 is not comprehensively reformed it is only a matter of time before the next scandal.

In 2002, the European Parliament and the Council adopted Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 which set general principles and requirements of food law known as the General Food Law Regulation. A check to see if the law was still fit for purpose started in 2014 and was completed this year. It reported mostly positive findings but some shortcomings were identified such as national differences in implementation and enforcement and ineffective risk communication having a negative impact on consumer trust.

In April this year, the Commission proposed to revise the law to increase transparency of the food chain. It would make the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) scientific assessments more transparent and improve risk communication around food safety issues.

Evaluation of the law
Foodwatch said the law has failed to achieve many of its objectives and cannot be considered a success. Several provisions are too weak, loopholes exist and it is not adequately enforced by member states.

Activists from the consumer organization handed over the open letter and protested in front of the European Commission building in Brussels this week. The European Commission told Food Safety News that representatives met with foodwatch and listened to their concerns on the day of the protest.

“Ensuring food safety for European citizens is a key priority for the European Commission. Citizens throughout the EU benefit from what is probably the safest food chain in the world. The recent evaluation of the General Food Law Regulation confirmed that the core objectives of this legislation have been achieved: high protection of human health and consumers’ interests whilst ensuring the smooth functioning of the internal market,” said an EC spokeswoman.

“Nevertheless, the European Commission proposed earlier this year a targeted revision of the General Food Law Regulation in order to further improve the work of the EFSA via increased transparency and sustainability of the EU risk assessment in the food chain. This proposal is now with the co-legislators.”

Foodwatch gave the commission an analysis of the weaknesses in EU food law and proposals for improvement. This looked at traceability, the precautionary principle, misleading labeling, disclosure obligations for public authorities, testing demands on businesses, consumer information rights and rights of consumers to sue companies and authorities.

Food scandal or food fraud?
“Be it fipronil in eggs, contaminated Lactalis baby milk or horsemeat in beef lasagne, Europe has been hit by recurring food scandals, many of which have posed health risks for consumers. Instead of protecting Europe’s 500 million citizens and correcting the shortcomings in EU law, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is pretending that everything is perfectly fine as it is,” said Foodwatch expert Lena Blanken.

The EC spokeswoman said some of the “so-called food scandals” listed by foodwatch – horsemeat in lasagna or fipronil – were actually consequences of fraud by food operators or, in the case of Lactalis, contamination in a production plant.

“Food fraud is a crime and Member States have the obligation to fight it. The commission comes in support of member states and has continuously reinforced its actions in this field, notably with the creation of the EU Food Fraud Network,” she added.

Foodwatch demanded that specific testing obligations for businesses be introduced as well as food traceability being guaranteed, referencing the fipronil scandal as proof of failure to ensure traceability throughout the supply chain.

The group said EU food law must demand authorities quickly inform consumers of potential health risks, food fraud and disclose names of the manufacturers and products. It called current tools – such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) “flawed.”

The EC spokeswoman said the RASFF alert system has ensured that food put on the market in the EU is safe, can be traced and quickly removed from shelves if required for almost 40 years.

“It was used during the fipronil event to trace and helped recalls of batches. The fipronil incident has led us to propose ways to further strengthen the system, making it better equipped to fight against fraud through coordinated actions by food operators and member states’ authorities,” the EC spokeswoman said.

The commission said ongoing or planned evaluations on nutrition and health claims, plant protection products, food contact materials, food irradiation and feed additives will allow a more in-depth assessment of how General Food Law principles and requirements are translated into binding rules to ensure citizens continue to enjoy high health and food safety standards.

Foodwatch also wants consumer associations to be granted the right to bring legal action against public authorities that ignore obligations under EU law – similar to powers available to environmental organizations. Earlier this year, foodwatch called for a fundamental amendment of EU food law to better protect citizens and said the reform proposals so far were “completely inadequate”.

Thilo Bode, director of foodwatch international, said it is time for the EU to effectively enforce compliance with food law and address loopholes.

“Unsafe food has been sold millions of times to unsuspecting consumers, industry and authorities have been unable to fully trace the distribution of the affected products, and, even when they knew the names of fraudulent or potentially harmful products and their manufacturers, they did not always immediately inform citizens – this must change,” he said.

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