There is a declining trend in food controls and the resources allocated to them across Europe, according to a consumer group.

The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) analyzed reports submitted by 12 member states on official control activities to identify trends from the information submitted over several years. The organization is urging governments to increase resources for controls and called on the EU Commission to ensure that member states’ reporting is complete, easy to access, and comparable across countries.

The EU Official Controls Regulation requires each member state to produce a Multi-Annual National Control Plan (MANCP) that outlines how national authorities intend to do official controls over several years. Each country must also submit an annual report to the European Commission on how they implemented their MANCP. However, in practice the reports vary in the nature and presentation of data making it difficult to identify and compare trends.

A revised Official Controls Regulation, which is scheduled to go into effect in December this year is expected to help address this problem by introducing a standard model form for presentation of annual reports.

Decline in human and financial resources
BEUC found, with some exceptions, human and financial resources for food controls are decreasing across the EU, as are the number of inspections. Some control staff say they lack the necessary resources to carry out their duties. Controls on foods most likely to cause poisoning such as eggs, milk and meat are decreasing and member states’ patchy reporting makes comparisons difficult, according to international officials.

Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, said the report shows national governments are cutting corners when it comes to resources on food checks.

“Even products prone to causing food poisoning such as meat, eggs and dairy are subjected to fewer and fewer controls. Several scandals have recently hit the headlines, including tainted baby milk and eggs as well as meat unfit for human consumption,” she said.

“Consumers then legitimately wonder whether governments are effectively ensuring that businesses play by the rules – and whether they have the means to do so. Consumer mistrust in food products ultimately harms businesses and the economy as a whole.”

In Greece’s 2017 annual report, the significant reduction of staff involved in official controls and the need to secure financial resources to cover the costs of inspections were highlighted as key concerns. In Germany between 2007 to 2017, fewer food establishments were controlled and those that were inspected were visited less frequently.

Between 2010 and 2017, Spain saw the number of employees responsible for performing official controls shrink from 6,318 in 2010 to 5,863 in 2017. The number of inspections in food establishments also fell 8.6 percent during the same period.

Goyens said in a single market where food may cross several borders before it ends up on plates, there can be no weak links in the control system.

“All member states must allocate adequate resources to food checks in order to protect Europeans’ health. Regrettably, they missed an opportunity to obligate a greater number of food businesses to fund controls with the reform of the law five years ago,” she said.

“Scores on the doors, ‘smileys’ and similar hygiene rating schemes help consumers decide where to eat and buy food. Yet, the new EU food controls law leaves it optional for member states to develop such tools. Some countries already lead by example; we hope that more will follow.”

Relaxed attitudes to food safety always backfire
BEUC leaders said it may be necessary to reconsider a 2013 EC proposal on charging mandatory fees on food businesses to finance official controls. They say penalties must be dissuasive enough to incentivize compliance.

The organization also contends that the risk-based approach to food controls ensures efficient use of resources, but member states should be required to detail the risk analysis that leads them to prioritize certain areas.

Outgoing Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, said the EU has a solid legislative basis to control hazards in the supply chain.

“To make sure that the legislation is implemented and enforced, we rely on audits and inspections carried out within and outside the EU. Member states are responsible for ensuring an adequate level of official controls and for detecting and combatting inappropriate or fraudulent activities,” he said.

“During the past five years, I have consistently insisted on the importance of this aspect in bilateral meetings as well as during meetings of the Council of Ministers. Relaxed attitudes to food safety always backfire and when they do, it may not only threaten public health but also affect the trust of our citizens as well as our trading partners in the EU food system as a whole.

“Therefore my call to the member states remains the same: there cannot be any complacency towards food safety and all actions — from farms to veterinary controls — must be implemented.”

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