Countries are doing a good job of keeping unsafe food out of Europe but some shortcomings were identified during a series of audits on the import control system.

The report covers 15 audits by the European Commission’s DG SANTE in 12 member states in 2015 and 2016 on how they were implementing two types of import controls: enhanced controls and re-enforced checks. France, Greece, Germany, Denmark, United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Romania were visited.

In all member states audited, there was good cooperation between customs and authorities responsible for checks on imported products. This ensures customs does not release consignments that require inspection to market before checks have occurred, according to the report. In some cases, cooperation included port authorities, which electronically block consignments under detention in their databases.

Areas to improve include how some countries are developing and implementing monitoring plans, which are used to target high-risk commodities for laboratory analyses. In member states where these plans are not as comprehensive, there was a tendency to issue fewer Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) notifications. There was also room for improvement in the time of reporting unfavorable results on RASFF on the part of some member states.

In 2017, the value of imports and exports of agricultural goods between the EU’s 28 member states and the rest of the world was over €275 billion, or $310 billion U.S. Slightly more food is imported into the EU than exported, according to Eurostat.

Enhanced controls and re-enforced checks
Certain foods and feeds are more likely to pose risks to human health and are subject to special import conditions known as enhanced controls. Such controls include a higher frequency of checks.

In a few member states there was a lack of access to information about impending arrival of consignments requiring these controls while in others, information technology was used successfully to flag consignments that should be detained and checked.

Where import controls on foods or feeds of animal origin from a third country or producer in that country give grounds to believe that EU veterinary legislation has been seriously or repeatedly infringed, a system of re-enforced checks has to be applied by member states.

This involves detaining and subjecting the next 10 consignments from that country or producer to more stringent checks, potentially including laboratory tests. Costs associated with these checks are paid by the operator responsible for the consignment. A serious infringement could be a microbiological failure such as presence of Salmonella or Shiga toxin producing E. coli due to poor hygiene during production, storage or transport.

Re-enforced checks were generally applied consistently to the relevant consignments, although weaknesses were noted in relation to sampling. The facilities, equipment and handling of samples was not at the required standard in a number of member states.

Varying effectiveness of monitoring plans
Each member state needs an annual monitoring plan for lab testing of imported consignments based on the products being imported and risks they represent, and it must take into account issues such as frequency of incoming consignments and results of previous testing.

All member states audited had monitoring plans which were risk-based but with varying effectiveness. In some countries, results from the past year’s monitoring were not always taken into account so trends on products with the highest risks and their origin could not be identified.

“In some cases, the range of products included in the plan was limited (such as) some commodities such as chilled products, despite being regularly imported into the EU, were not included in the plan, or the implementation of the plan was compromised due to organizational and resource issues (such as) contracts with laboratories for testing were not concluded in good time or the taking of samples was unjustifiably concentrated in certain time periods of the year,” according to the report.

The most common challenges in monitoring plan implementation concerned safeguarding the legal and analytical validity of samples, respecting deadlines for testing and communicating results to other member states and the Commission via TRACES to help prompt follow-up action.

In three member states, sampling was limited to consignments from sources notified through TRACES/RASFF. Absence of systems to proactively detect and sample suspect consignments meant import controls were less robust than was necessary.

All products of animal origin and certain items of non-animal origin can only be imported if accompanied by health certificates issued by authorities of the exporting third country. The certificates provide guarantees that the food has been checked by officials in the third country and it abides by EU food safety standards. The EU places limitations on which third countries and which factories from these countries can export to the region.

For rejected consignments, there were cases where authorities had not correctly applied the rules for re-dispatch or had not made sufficient effort to ensure the rejected consignment had actually left EU territory.

Eight audits on the implementation of checks on documents accompanying consignments and the whether to permit importation took place in 2017. Last year, audits covered implementation of the checks on consignments transiting the EU and audits on general import controls are continuing this year.

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