A lack of resources and the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact the ability to do official controls, according to a report published by the European Commission.

The document covers EU countries’ official controls and the EU Commission’s control activities in 2021.

There were 16.9 million sites within the scope of such controls and national authorities carried out 5 million checks. Around 1 million non-compliances were identified, leading to nearly 500,000 administrative sanctions and almost 8,000 judicial actions.

In 2020, national authorities carried out 4.1 million official controls, which identified 655,000 non-compliances, leading to 388,000 administrative sanctions and 12,700 judicial actions. 

Enforcement ranges from verbal and written warnings through to the seizure and destruction of goods and the temporary or permanent removal of approval for firms. Administrative fines are used as a deterrent and formal legal proceedings are a last resort. In 2021, the food service sector had the most sanctions followed by food wholesale and retail. Some non-compliances were due to ignorance of legislation by businesses, while others were intentional misconduct.

Controls lower than planned
For microbiological criteria and contaminants in food, the most non-compliances and sanctions were in fresh meat. For pesticides, the problem was highest for fruit and vegetables. Eighteen non-compliances were identified for the irradiation of food, 254 for novel food, and 99 for the use of unauthorized genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food.

During 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect the ability of national authorities and the EU Commission to carry out planned controls and audits. Other negative factors on inspection programs included insufficient resources (staff, finances, and equipment), animal (African swine fever and avian influenza) and plant health issues, and Brexit.

Denmark diverted significant human resources to culling all minks on farms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to humans. As all sectors showed a growing trend in distance selling, Finland allocated more resources to related controls.

Bulgaria reported a decrease in the number of staff involved in official controls; an increased work burden for them, including the need to do overtime; an increase in the number of sites subject to controls; and outdated technical equipment.

Reporting requirements have changed since 2020 and not all EU countries were able to provide data for 2021 in enough detail. Fifteen missed the deadline by up to two weeks and the last report was submitted three months late.

National authorities provided very limited information on controls on fraudulent and deceptive practices. Examples included checks on illegal slaughter and sale of undeclared meat and placing food on social media using false profiles.

In 2021, European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) cases targeted counterfeit, sparkling wine, whiskey, and vodka. In one case, 421,000 bottles of counterfeit wine of several brands were seized in the EU and Moldova, and in another, 576 liters of fake Prosecco were found in the EU.

In Lithuania, the State Plant Service prioritizes advising businesses, providing support, and taking other measures to prevent infringements of legislation rather than seeking to achieve compliance only by sanctions or penalties. In Belgium, companies certified under the nationally validated self-checking guides benefit from lower fees and reduced frequency of official controls.

The Netherlands said sectors subject to control are growing faster than the national authority’s human resources or capacity but the government had allocated extra means. It is also assessing whether techniques introduced to enable controls during the pandemic, such as the use of cameras in slaughterhouses, can be kept and improved.

EU’s country audits
The EU Commission carried out 98 audits and checks on the official control systems of EU countries in 2021. Of these, 83 were remote and included videoconferencing. Eight were performed partially remotely and seven were in person. Controls resulted in 407 recommendations.

Audits on ready-to-eat fishery products confirmed an earlier finding on the requirement to demonstrate that products meet the relevant food safety criteria throughout their shelf-life.

Audits in the meat sector looked into allegations from 2019 that cows unfit for slaughter were being killed and assessed new legal requirements for ante- and post-mortem inspections in poultry slaughterhouses. They identified gaps in the official control systems on training, antemortem inspections, and emergency slaughtering at the farm. 

In the dairy sector, weaknesses in quality control systems for non-bovine milk; training; oversight of controls; and the rating and enforcement of non-compliances were found.

Audits on microbiological risks in primary production continued. Improvements were seen compared to past visits, but seeds for sprouting are still not adequately controlled and registration of primary producers needs to improve so they can be risk-assessed and included in the control system at an appropriate frequency.

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