Food and Agriculture
From farm to fork
Safe food for Europe's consumers
Food safety is vitally important. People in Europe want to be sure that, wherever it comes from, and wherever they buy it, their food is safe and wholesome. That means setting Europe-wide standards and taking Europe-wide action to enforce them. Doing so is a priority for the European Union.
Work to improve food safety is going on all the time, but there has in addition been a major overhaul in the last couple of years. This was a response to headline-hitting food safety scares in the 1990s about such things as ‘mad cow’ disease, dioxin-contaminated feed and adulterated olive oil. The purpose was not just to make sure that EU food safety laws were as up-to-date as possible, but also that consumers have as much information as possible about potential risks and what is being done to minimise them.
There is no such thing as zero risk, but the EU does its utmost, through a comprehensive food safety strategy, to keep risks to a minimum with the help of modern food and hygiene standards drawn up to reflect the most advanced scientific knowledge. Food safety starts on the farm. The rules apply from farm to fork, whether our food is produced in the EU or is imported from elsewhere in the world.
There are four important elements to the EU’s food safety strategy:
- rules on the safety of food and animal feed;
- independent and publicly available scientific advice;
- action to enforce the rules and control the processes;
- recognition of the consumer’s right to make choices based on complete information about where food has come from and what it contains.
Room for diversity
Food safety does not mean food uniformity. The system for ensuring food safety is common to all EU countries, but it allows for diversity. There is a place for traditional foods and local specialities. In fact, the EU actively promotes diversity and quality. It protects distinctive or traditional foods associated with certain regions or certain production methods from being unfairly copied by others, and it promotes organic farming.
When new members join
When a country prepares to join the EU, it often has to make a major and costly effort to comply with the rules and to upgrade its processing and handling facilities. Often, it will receive financial assistance from the EU to make the necessary changes in good time. In exceptional cases, the EU may allow a transitional period in which to complete upgrading after a country has joined the Union. This is why exceptions – mainly for plants processing meat and fish – currently apply in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The latest deadline for catching up is December 2007. Meanwhile, food from plants that have still to finish their upgrading can only be sold in the country where it is produced. Consumers in that country can easily recognise these products because they must carry a stamp indicating that they come from facilities not yet complying with EU rules.
Making food safe: a comprehensive rule book
The first rules on food safety date from the very early days of the EU. The food safety crises of the 1990s showed it was time to replace what had become a patchwork of rules with a simpler and more comprehensive approach. The new approach also paid closer attention to the risks from contaminated feed.
The result was a new piece of ‘umbrella’ legislation known as the General Food Law, phased in between 2002 and 2005. This law does not only lay down the principles applying to food safety, it also:
- introduces the concept of ‘traceability’. In other words, food and feed businesses – whether they are producers, processors or importers – must make sure that all foodstuffs, animal feed and feed ingredients can be traced right through the food chain, from farm to fork. Each business must be able to identify its supplier and which businesses it supplied. This is known as the ‘one-step-backward, one-step-forward’ approach.
- set up the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to bring under one roof the work previously done by a range of scientific committees and to make the scientific risk assessment process more public.
- reinforces the rapid alert system which the European Commission and EU governments use to act quickly in the event of a food and/or feed safety scare.
Producers and processors must also comply with a large number of rules on specific issues. The point of all these rules is to make sure that food is as safe as is technically possible, to keep consumers informed and to give them as much choice as possible.
Depending on the issue, this can mean that the EU adopts a single set of standards or that the member states agree to recognise each other’s standards. Differences in detail may not matter if the end result is the same.