Food Safety Checks: Effective?

While there is still room for improvement, progress has been made in the use of food safety control legislation and resources, in addition to better planning, implementation, and coordination across all sectors.
 
Member States have been largely effective in implementing official controls to ensure food safety, and have demonstrated respect for animal welfare issues.

These are the main findings of a newly published annual Commission report, which aims to provide an accurate picture of the implementation of such controls across Member States.

Context and Sources 

The 2004 Regulation on official food safety and animal health controls requires the Commission to submit an annual report on the implementation of official controls in the Member States.

For their part, Member States are obliged to monitor and verify that businesses in the sector fulfil the requirements of EU law on food and feed safety, organic production and quality schemes. They are required to use official controls for this purpose.

In addition, they must ensure that goods on the EU market - either EU produced, or imported - comply with these requirements. Member States must also implement multi-annual national control plans (MANCPs), and submit an annual report on the implementation of these plans to the Commission.

The main sources for this report - the third to be submitted by the Commission – include Member State annual reports for 2010, the results of the Commission’s own control activities and other relevant sources. These include Reports from Member States on controls in specific sectors, Commission enforcement actions and the results of EU rapid alert systems.

Member State Annual Reports

This report provides an analysis of the 2010 annual reports submitted by Member States and covers a number of topics. The overall conclusion, sys the report, is that Member States are actively looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the systems in place.

There continues to be a trend across Member States towards increased risk-based controls, and Member States are also introducing instruments to enhance oversight by central competent authorities, and the performance of control authorities.

Effectiveness of Controls

Most Member States have in place strategic, operational or compliance indicators to assess performance, although there is considerable variation in the sectors covered.  In some countries with more than one central competent authority, the coherence of reports could be improved, says the Commission. 

Some Member States have highlighted an improved level of overall effectiveness linked to more risk-based controls, and an extension of risk-based controls into new sectors. One of the outcomes of more risk-based controls has been that the levels of non-compliance may not be directly comparable from one year to the next.

Non-Compliance

The main areas of non-compliance identified across sectors are as follows: 
• Operational hygiene requirements 
• HACCP 
• Structural or equipment based hygiene requirements 
• Labelling of food and feed 
• Additives in feed 
• Record keeping 
• Microbiological contamination

The identification of underlying causes of non-compliance is generally limited. HACCP/hygiene deficiencies were often attributed to high staff turnover, a lack of training at food business operators (FBOs) and minimal or no consequences for non-compliances.

National System of Audits

All Member States carry out audits. This is an important instrument as it provides management with key information on the effectiveness of their control systems. However, an overview of the outcome of their audits is not always provided, in particular where performed in devolved regions, or information on follow-up to the audit reports. In addition, some Member States reported that resource constraints in their audit units had curtailed implementation of audits.

Resources 

A number of reports pointed to changes in this area, such as significant organisational change in France, Netherlands, Slovenia and United Kingdom, and streamlining of laboratory services (in Bulgaria; in Spain, for food safety; and in Poland, for pesticides).

Some Member States are re-allocating staff resources from routine controls to more risk-based “control campaigns”, and there is a general awareness that resources must be deployed more efficiently, especially in the current economic climate where public expenditure is under pressure.

Commission Activities

The report examines a range of food safety, animal health, animal welfare and plant health issues covered by EU actions.

Food Safety

The Commission carried out a series of audits on hygiene controls related to red meat and milk production in all Member States between 2008 and 2011. These confirmed that

Member States have introduced control systems largely in line with the provisions of
Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 and carry out robust controls in relation to red meat and milk and their products.

A series of audits on traceability of beef and beef products was completed in 2011. The latest review indicates that controls of traceability of beef and beef products and compulsory labelling have improved significantly in the Member States visited. Some shortcomings were noted related to the management of databases used for the registration of animals.

Audits were carried out in nine Member States to assess compliance with EU requirements on fish and live bivalve molluscs. For fishery products, it was found that overall, comprehensive official control systems were in place in all the countries visited. In some countries significant variations in the implementation of official controls were found between different regions. In general, laboratories performing official analyses were well equipped and able to carry out the necessary analyses. Most laboratories were accredited.

Audits of Member State control systems for poultry meat and poultry meat products continued in 2012. As was the case last year, the overall level of compliance was generally good and much improved on the situation which existed prior to the enactment of the "Hygiene Package".

In most Member States, the plans for monitoring and official sampling for Salmonella in different poultry categories did not fully comply with EU legislation; deficiencies mostly related to deficiencies in sampling, actions taken following positive test results and laboratories. In the most recent audit in 2012, weaknesses were also identified in the oversight by the central competent authorities of regional authorities' implementation of the plans. An overview report is under preparation.

A new series of audits started in 2011, covering official controls on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Apart from GM food and feed it included, for the first time, an evaluation of controls on the deliberate release of GMO into the environment for trial and cultivation. Four Member States were audited. The zero tolerance of GMO presence in non-GM seed was not respected in two Member States.

Animal Health

The Commission completed a series of fact-findings missions to four Member States with significant populations of sheep and goats.  The overview report points to significant differences in implementation between Member States, in particular, in relation to the use of electronic identification for disease control and management purposes. 

A major programme for the eradication of rabies in central and eastern European Member States is co-financed by the EU. The Commission has carried out a number of audits of the programmes in these countries. These have confirmed that substantial progress is being made.

The EU is now close to confirming the total elimination of Classical swine fever (CSF) on its territory. This has been achieved through the increased application of bio-safety measures and improved vaccination campaigns for wild boars in the context of EU-funded eradication programmes.

A series of inspections of EU laboratories that handle live foot-and-mouth disease virus was completed. While the bio-security standards applied in most laboratories were found to be generally satisfactory, minor deficiencies were detected in virtually all laboratories, with serious deficiencies detected in a number of laboratories.

Animal Welfare

In addition to audits specifically devoted to animal welfare controls, Commission audits of hygiene controls on red meat and poultry now also routinely evaluate Member State controls on animal welfare at slaughter. One audit contained findings that although a significant number of slaughterhouses in the Member State concerned performed slaughter without stunning under a derogation related to slaughter according to a religious custom, only part of the meat produced was sold as such.

The export of animals to Turkey, a growing trade, was also addressed in Commission audits. An audit was carried out at the EU exit point in Bulgaria and recommendations were made to expedite procedures so that any unnecessary delays could be eliminated.

Plant Health

Plant health audits in Member States, assessing import control measures and the implementation of EU emergency measures in the case of harmful organism outbreaks, showed substantial differences between the audited Member States in the organisation of import controls, and in their effectiveness in detecting harmful organisms in consignments presented for import. The success of eradication efforts varied greatly between the different harmful organisms, some being easier to control than others.

Animal Feed

In the area of feed safety, the main picture shows that the level of compliance of operators along the chain is variable. While the situation is satisfactory for primary production, there is clear room for improvements in non-primary production.

Other Sources of Information

Sector-Specific Reporting

Provisions in EU legislation on different aspects of food safety, animal health and welfare and plant health require Member States to submit regular reports on certain specific requirements.

Among the most relevant of these reports are those on: 
• Monitoring and testing of ruminants for the presence of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSEs) 
• Trends and sources of zoonoses 
• Zoonotic agents and food-borne outbreaks in the EU 
• Notifiable diseases of bovine animals and swine 
• Annual EU-wide pesticide residues monitoring report 
• Reports on animal disease eradication task force meetings

A table, listing the main Commission reports, is included in the Report’s Annex.

Rapid Alert Systems

The existing rapid alert systems for food and feed safety (RASFF), animal disease outbreaks (ADNS) and plant disease outbreaks (Europhyt) represent important tools for managing the rapid response to emergencies and emerging risks and a source of information on the pattern of pests and diseases.

The data they provide may also be an important indicator of shortcomings in relation to compliance with established safety standards and this data is consequently closely reviewed in the evaluation of controls.

Conclusions

On the whole, the report finds that Member States ensure a good level of implementation of official controls across the food chain, and respect for food safety, plant and animal health, and animal welfare issues. While there is still scope for improvement, there has been progress in the efficient use of control instruments and resources, and in planning, implementation, and co-ordination of controls across all sectors.

Official controls, and legislative instruments to optimise their effectiveness, are key features of the EU food chain, says the Commission. They allow competent authorities to perform controls on a risk basis, and to identify shortcomings and address them in a timely manner. They also provide competent authorities with a meaningful overview of the food safety and health situations.

Member State reports provide reassurance that national competent authorities take their role seriously, with controls becoming increasingly risk-based, as confirmed by reports from audits carried out by Commission experts. New instruments to enhance oversight and the performance of control authorities are being introduced.

These Commission audit reports, complementing Member State control activities and reports provide a robust system for assessing the effectiveness of Member State control systems, concludes the Commission. This system allows the Commission, whenever necessary, to take the appropriate measures to achieve improvements in official controls and audit systems in Member States.