The European Commission is developing steps to be followed in times of a crisis based on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The contingency plan is a set of procedures to be put in place in times of crises to ensure food supply and food security across the EU. It will cover different food system-related sectors that may be affected including food safety.
A permanent forum will be created by the Commission including member states and, potentially, food supply chain stakeholders. The forum would help develop ways to improve coordination at EU and member state level on how to monitor and respond to crises affecting food.
The roadmap states coordination is best at EU level and that member states acting alone can lead to negative effects on other nations and on the EU’s food supply chain, including the single market and international trade.
Consumer trust in the EU food system may be jeopardized because of a lack of effective food safety controls and guidelines, such as reduced official controls or own checks on compliance with food and feed safety requirements, according to the Commission.
The COVID-19 crisis showed the EU’s food supply chain responded well but in the initial stages there were issues that threatened food security.
Some sectors, products and groups of workers suffered more including staff shortages because of confinement measures, lack of access to cross-border or seasonal workers, restrictions on workplace conditions, or COVID-19 outbreaks in processing plants, as well as challenges in production storage. There was the almost overnight disappearance of large parts of demand sources for these sectors or products, in particular from restaurants, hotels, and catering, as well as new sanitary requirements.
Fraud risk and ensuring food safety
The plans received more than 65 comments from companies and associations with common themes including calls to recognize the food industry as essential and a need to define a food crisis.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said reference should be made to tools already in place such as RASFF and the DG SANTE crisis coordinators network and how they fit with the plan to avoid duplication.
An increase of food fraud incidents can be expected in crisis periods, so reporting systems like RASFF should be raised with forum members to tackle such issues as efficiently and rapidly as possible, added the agency.
The European Livestock and Meat Trades Union (UECBV) welcomed the contingency plan adding precautionary measures to prevent crises are always better than trying to manage such incidents.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) said when a crisis affects the food system it is essential that comprehensive information from a trustworthy source on whether or not it is a potential risk to food safety is made public as soon as possible and inconsistent or conflicting messaging must be avoided.
Control systems have been disrupted by COVID-19 with the Commission giving flexibility for member states to carry out checks including the possibility, under certain conditions, for food business staff to perform controls.
“While the need for exceptional, temporary measures may arise in times of crisis, transparent communication and information is needed on the concrete effects of any derogations on the ground. Moreover, it is essential to ensure that any exceptional arrangements last for no longer than necessary and do not put food safety and consumer health at risk,” according to BEUC.
BEUC added that in times of a crisis, rogue traders may be tempted to cut corners and risk of food fraud can increase, especially if control systems are disrupted. The group said the contingency plan should pay attention to the risk of food fraud and food-related scams taking advantage of consumers’ increased vulnerability.
Being flexible and going digital
Temporary flexibility around EU food labeling legislation, except for food safety related issues such as allergen information, was agreed by some member states. The Commission is allowing electronic copies of original certificates and countries to carry out remote official controls because of the pandemic, but as it stands now, that is only until February.
EuroCommerce, which represents the retail and wholesale sector, backed flexibility throughout the crisis citing the frequency of physical food safety controls and increased digitalization of administrative processes including food safety audits and controls.
“While we continue to support effective control systems to maintain the necessary standards and keeping consumers safe, it is our opinion that this flexibility has worked well, primarily because of the continued risk-based control of food businesses. As such it should be an aim to keep the administrative burdens at as low a level as possible also after the crisis,” according to EuroCommerce.
Customs may have to cope with fewer staff because of confinement measures and hygiene protocols. A solution could be use of scanned copies or electronic sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certificates, according to FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the food and drink sector.
CELCAA, the EU association of trade in agri-food products, said the regulation on food controls allows coordination between member states and the Commission in case of food safety issues.
“CELCAA would also integrate food safety into the scope of the plan, with a view to promoting the take-up of digital processes such as e-certificates and others as a tool to facilitate the movement of agri-food and agri-supply – thus contributing to food security.”
Eucolait, the EU association for dairy trade, said key components of the EU food safety system such as official controls regulation and the TRACES system appeared to have functioned well. However, increased resources to enable a move towards e-certification and digitalization in general will create a more efficient environment for operators going forward.
Freshfel and European Sprouted Seeds Association said the Commission must acknowledge the diversity of events that may occur in the agri-food sector such as human health-related crises, food hygiene and food fraud crises. The groups suggested appointing an EU Food Crisis Prevention and Management Coordinator.
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