The European Union’s system for protecting consumers from chemical hazards in food is overstretched, according to a report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

The audit between December 2017 and May 2018 concentrated on chemical hazards — poisonous substances that occur naturally or are added during food production or handling. Examples include cleaning agents, pesticides and certain metals. Chemical hazards had not been looked at in detail before while physical and biological hazards had, at least partly, been covered by ECA audits.

Food may be exposed to toxic levels of chemicals by agricultural practices, industrial processes, inappropriate storage, environmental contamination and natural toxins.

It concluded the model is soundly based and respected worldwide. However, the European Commission and member states do not have the capacity to fully implement the system.

Some hazards checked more than others

Auditors found the EU legal framework on chemicals in food, feed, plants and live animals remains a work in progress and has not yet achieved the level of implementation envisaged in EU food law as it covers pesticide residues and veterinary medicines in greater detail than enzymes and food contact materials.

The audit team told Food Safety News that during preparation, it found Europe was considered one of the safer places to eat food so the overall conclusion that the safety policy protects citizens was not surprising.

“The framework is there but in certain parts of its detailed implementation we think it faces challenges, certain hazards are not checked as well as others. We have identified certain weaknesses and inconsistencies in the application of the system and they lead us to our recommendations,” they said.

“One of the consequences is that some substances are more checked than others. For example, pesticide residues or veterinary medicines are largely checked while other groups of chemicals such as food flavorings are checked much less. That has consequences on enforcement because if you don’t have checks you cannot not find anything wrong, so enforcement is not always properly working.”

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The audit team said the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) suffers backlogs in work on chemicals and this is a consequence of the system being overstretched because industry is constantly growing and sending requests to EFSA to approve new substances while the agency has limited capacity to do its job. Delays in scientific assessments affect the lawmakers’ ability to pass new or amend existing laws.

“The particular aspect of chemicals hazards is that you cannot see the immediate effect, so it is difficult to blame someone if something happens and that is why the public responsibility is there,” said the auditors.

“Other types of hazards such as Salmonella are more visible but chemical hazards is moving up the Commission’s agenda and the long-term accumulative and combination effects are becoming more important. Some national legislation is moving ahead and our report may prompt the Commission to move forward as well.”

Private sector involvement

There are limitations in the control system as member states faced difficulties in determining what enforcement action to take in the case of non-compliance. They cannot refer to a set value as a basis for determining the nature of enforcement actions. Possible enforcement measures include destroying or withdrawing a product from the market, suspending or shutting the activity down.

The ECA said the EU model can remain credible by complementing public control systems with private-sector ones. However, synergies between these have only just started to be explored.

Auditors recommended that the Commission should assess potential changes to the legislation on chemical hazards including allowing member state public authorities to rely more on checks by the private sector.

Concerns have been raised previously about financial relationships between food businesses and certification bodies and audits being mainly announced plus legal requirements not replicated in private sector schemes.

“In the report, we say where it is justified we look for more synergies and this was based on when we saw the pattern of checks and the fact that public sector controls covered some areas quite well and others not at all,” said the auditors.

“When you see what is done on the spot, often the public controls were repeating what was done already by a private company so the same type of hazards were being checked more than once whereas other things were not checked at all.

“The Commission already has, in its General Food Law, the possibility to explore this synergy. We think this would be a good idea but only where it is justified, so where accredited labs are being used and companies have a strong system of auto-control then there is a possibility of synergy, so the scarce resources for public sector checks are directed where they are best used.

“It is not to say that public sector checks will be replaced by private sector ones but more that when they design their program of checks they take into account where we have good private sector checks and focus on the more risky areas.”

The Commission accepted all the recommendations. It acknowledged certain legal provisions are not yet implemented and some scientific methodologies are not yet available due to scientific complexity. It said the Official Controls Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2017/625) which applies beginning Dec. 14, 2019, states that competent authorities shall do these controls taking account of private quality assurance schemes.

Findings from country visits

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Auditors interviewed the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, EFSA and consulted food industry stakeholders as well as visiting the Netherlands, Italy and Slovenia.

In each country, auditors visited government ministries, food business operators and points in the member states’ control systems such as border inspection posts to follow the chain of control.

“Slovenia was the only one out of the three that carried out checks on flavorings. However, it checks certain substances more than others and there is no rationale behind that,” according to the audit team.

“Italy had a good coordination with Belgium and France for botanicals for the BELFRIT project and this has resulted in legislation in Belgium. This cooperation by these three countries shows the need for harmonization and the wish from member states that there is harmonization at EU level. For Italy there are substances not regularly checked, for example food flavorings and enzymes and food contact materials are quite rarely checked.

“The Netherlands recognized the importance of coordinating the private and public sector and seeing how reliable the private sector is. On the other hand, they do not regularly check food enzymes, flavorings or food contact materials.”

The report will be discussed next week in the budgetary control committee of the European Parliament, and may later be presented to other Parliament committees such as on health as well as the Council of the EU. These institutions may follow it up with a working document or a resolution.

The ECA will follow it up either generally – as part of regular follow-up of reports – in a few years or further down the line in a sort of repeat exercise, to see if there have been changes and improvements made.

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