The European Commission has published a report about checks on food, feed, animals and plants. The authors say inspection programs need to improve.
The report covers EU countries’ domestic official controls and the EU Commission’s checks on national systems in 2019 and 2020.
Controls and audits verify that businesses are complying with legal requirements and help enable safe trade in food, animals and plants, within the EU and with non-EU countries. National authorities are responsible for doing official controls based on risk.
All EU countries faced problems in implementing full inspection programs because of restrictions to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, staffing levels, resources and preparations for Brexit.
Actions by national agencies included postponing and/or reducing the number of controls in certain areas based on a risk assessment; cutting the time needed in-person by conducting the documentary part remotely; and using remote audit techniques.
Non-compliance and sanctions
According to data from 26 EU countries in 2020, national authorities carried out 4.1 million official controls, which identified about 655,000 non-compliances, leading to 388,000 administrative sanctions and 12,700 judicial actions. Animal transport was subject to the most controls but the highest number of non-compliances were found in foodservice and the most sanctions involved food at the wholesale level. More than 9,500 of the legal actions involved food and food safety.
Fresh meat was the top non-compliant category for microbiological reasons while for contaminants it was beverages and fruit and vegetables because of pesticides. For irradiation of food, 14 non-compliance issues and sanctions were applied.
Some reported that compliance was in line with previous years. Enforcement actions range from verbal and written warnings, to seizure and destruction of goods and the temporary removal or restriction of approvals of businesses. Companies can be fined but referral to courts remains a last resort.
Problems were identified in the maintenance of premises and equipment, personal hygiene and training, food storage, procedures based on HACCP principles, food handling and the respect of best-before or use-by dates. National authorities said reasons for non-compliance included ignorance of legislation by businesses and sometimes intentional misconduct.
Information provided on controls targeting fraud and deceptive practices was very limited. Pilot fact-finding studies of two EU countries in 2019 and four in 2020 took place, with two more planned for this year. A guidance document is scheduled to be published this year based on findings.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden include the results of private third-party assurance schemes in their official control systems. Belgium noted that inspection results are better in businesses certified under these schemes.
EU audits of national agencies
In 2019 and 2020, 170 audits and checks were undertaken on the official control systems of EU countries including 43 that were solely remote. They resulted in 527 recommendations.
EU Commission controls identified weaknesses in certain national systems and highlighted where there was room for improvement. Follow-up of audit recommendations shows that national agencies generally take corrective measures to address shortcomings.
Challenges faced by authorities related to ready-to-eat foods of animal origin, where a need for training and support for officials and a lack of systematic reviews of firms limited the follow-up of deficiencies in businesses’ procedures to prevent cross-contamination or in sampling and testing; horse meat, where audits following the 2013 scandal found issues with horse passports, databases and controls of the recording of non-permitted treatments; and food of non-animal origin, where there is room to improve controls on frozen soft fruit and vegetables.
For Salmonella in poultry, audits showed that many countries had programs that complied with the requirements and were effective in meeting EU targets for Salmonella prevalence. However, in most cases the detection rate in samples taken by companies was significantly lower than in official samples. This may make the businesses’ sampling an ineffective contribution to the programs, and suggests it is likely that low-level flock infections remain undetected, said the Commission.
In 2019, the Commission opened legal proceedings against Czech Republic because of its systematic official controls of certain foodstuffs coming from other EU countries every time they entered the country, in breach of rules on official controls. A long-running case against Greece, relating to a shortage of staff for veterinary control services, was closed.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)