Official public audits, Covid-19 waivers. Scenario

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The containment measures from Covid-19, taken in recent weeks by various EU member states, have also challenged official public controls on the food supply chain. (1) In noting this, the European Commission, by reg. EU 2020/466, introduces a number of temporary exemptions, designed to allow some remote verification activities with the ‘available remote communication tools’.
The coronavirus emergency, moreover, does not appear likely to end in a few weeks. What scenario lies ahead and how to deal with it?

Official public audits, resources needed

The regulation on official public controls – reg. EU 2017/625, in full application since 14.12.19 – requires member states to organize a suitable number of experts and staff. To ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of control activities on the entire agrifood chain (EU Reg. 2017/625, Art. 5.1.e).

Moreover, resources on public health have been reduced in recent years–dramatically, in most EU states–even in veterinary and hygiene controls, as has already been reported https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/controlli-pubblici-ufficiali-in-declino-il-rapporto-beuc.

EU27, serious dysfunction in COVID-19 emergency

Coronavirus containment measures introduced in the various member states-though at different times and with varying geometries-have established limits on the movement of people and other social distancing measures. The system of public controls in Italy has continued and continues despite the lockdown, thanks to a stronger organization than the EU average. But in other countries the situation is critical.

The European Commission notes how the ability of some states to carry out official controls as required is currently compromised. Particularly with regard to clinical examination of livestock, some checks on animal products, plants and plant products. As well as on food, feed and sample testing in official laboratories designated by member states.

Signing and issuance of original paper official certificates and attestations-which must accompany consignments of animals and germinal material entering and circulating in the EU-cannot in turn be performed in accordance with EU rules.

The current coronavirus crisis represents for the Commission ʹanexceptional and unprecedented challenge to the ability of Member States to fully carry out the official controls and other official activitiesʹrequired by Reg. 2017/625. (1)

Derogations on controls, legal prerequisites and burdens of individual member states

Regulation (EU) 2017/625 empowers the Commission to adopt, by means of implementing acts, appropriate temporary measures necessary to contain widespread health risks–to humans, animals and plants, animal welfare–where there is evidence of serious failures in the control system of one or more member states. (2)

Member states that experience serious difficulties in managing their control systems may accordingly apply the temporary rules to the extent necessary to manage serious control system failures. With duty, however, to take all necessary activities as soon as possible to remedy the serious dysfunction of their control systems. (3)

Other member states, in addition to the Commission, must in any case be notified about the adoption of temporary measures derogating from the control and other official activities established in Regulation (EU) 2017/625. (4)

Temporary exemptions Covid case, reg. EU 2020/466

On 03/30/20 , the Commission adopted Implementing Regulation (EU) No. 2020/466, ‘on temporary measures to contain widespread human, animal, and plant health and animal welfare risks during certain major failures of Member States’ control systems due to coronavirus disease‘.

The temporary measures – in effect from 3/31/20 to 6/1/20 – serve to facilitate the planning and reorganization of official control supervision activities during the COVID-19 crisis. (5) So as to balance the needs to ensure:

– the health of officers, who often still lack PPE (Personal Protective Equipment, respirators first and foremost), with respect to the risk of infection,

Food safety, animal welfare and plant health. At the same time, the proper functioning of the single market and the movement of goods must also be ensured. (6)

Temporary waivers, details

The temporary exemptions established by reg. EU 2020/446 pertain to control personnel, electronic document support, and remote communication between operators. Details follow.

A) delegation of controls to third parties. ʹOfficial controls and other official activities may be carried out by one or more natural persons specifically authorized by the competent authority on the basis of their qualifications, training and practical experience.”

Persons delegated to carry out activities must follow the instructions of the competent authority, maintaining contact with it ‘by any available means of communication.’ They must act impartially, free of conflicts of interest (Article 3).

B) electronic copies of documents. ‘Exceptionally.‘, the public enforcement can be performed on an electronic copy of official certificates or attestations, ‘or on an electronic format of the certificate or official attestation processed and transmitted in Traces, provided that the person responsible for submitting the official certificate or official attestation submits a statement to the competent authority that the original of the official certificate or official attestation will be transmitted as soon as technically feasibleʹ.

The competent authority, in all cases, ʹtakesinto account the risk of non-compliance of the animals and goods in question and the operatorsʹ records of the results of official controls carried out on them and their compliance with the regulationsʹthat fall within the scope of reg. EU 2017/625 (Article 4),

(c) delegations to private testing laboratories, streaming meetings. Always ʹexceptionallyʹ:

analyses, tests or diagnoses the performance of which is the responsibility of official laboratories‘ may be delegated to ‘any laboratory designated for this purpose by the competent authority on a temporary basis.’

(b)ʹin the case of physical meetings with operators and their staff in the context of official control methods and techniquesʹ specified in the following paragraph ʹthrough available remote means of communicationʹ(Article 5)

Official controls temporarily allowed by remote communication tools

The ‘methods and techniques of official controls temporarily allowed to be performed ‘remotely’ are all those set out in Regulation (EU) 2017/625. Namely:

Examination of self-control (i.e., controls performed by operators and their outcomes),

– inspections of:

(a) equipment, means of transportation, premises and other places under their control (and their adjacencies),

(b) animals and goods, food (including raw materials, ingredients and semi-finished products,, processing aids) and other products used in the preparation and production of food and feed,

(c) cleaning and maintenance products and procedures,

(d) traceability, consumer and operator information, packaging materials (including MOCA, Materials and Objects Intended to Come into Contact with Food, or Food Contact Materials, FCM),

Checks of hygienic conditions on operators’ premises,

Evaluation of procedures on good manufacturing practices, good hygienic practices, good agricultural practices and procedures based on the principles of hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP),

Examination of documents, traceability data, and other data that may be relevant to the assessment of compliance with the regulations being monitored. Including, where applicable, documents accompanying food, feed, and any substance or material entering or leaving an establishment,

Interviews with operators and their staff,

Verification of operator-recorded measurements and other test results,

Sampling, analysis, diagnosis and testing,

audits of operators,

any other activity necessary to detect instances of noncompliance‘ (EU Reg. 2017/625, Article 14).

Upcoming Scenario

The Covid-19 pandemic was declared by WHO on 11.3.20. At present, it is not easy to foresee a short-term relaxation of the restraining measures already introduced, in Europe as well as on other continents, particularly with regard to restrictions on the movement of people. In view of this-and beyond smart working-we are already beginning to think in terms of smart organization.

In turn, the European legislature should introduce a simple reform suitable for allowing the use of information technologies that are being continuously developed even in official controls. Entrusting their implementation to the responsibility of member states, with annual reporting burdens to Brussels also with a view to sharing best practices (as already provided in various contexts, e.g., unfair trade practices).

Continuity management must come at all times, with whatever tools are available as long as they are effective, in public health dedicated to food and feed as well as in their supply chains. If food safety is not effectively guaranteed, after all, individual member states may take safeguard measures against goods arriving from other countries.

In turn, the internal market is plagued by the European Commission’s chronic starvation, as we have repeatedly denounced. And if Brussels does not take action against member states that have for years continued to issue national technical standards disrespectful of EU law, as most recently the Italian Bellanova-Patuanelli decree, little or nothing will be able to do against various autarkic measures.

Research and development

Horizon 2020 can provide the framework for sharing and fine-tuning-between public and private entities in different countries, including those outside Europe-of best practices and models suitable for ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of public controls with the help of technology. Based on shared international standards (ISO, GS-1) and open-source protocols:

publicblockchain, for example, through protocols such as Bitcoin and Open Time Stamps, can ensure the technological effectiveness and incorruptibility of advanced tracking systems.

the IoT (Internet of Things), in the context of public blockchain-based systems (e.g., Wiise Chain), can at the same time validate additional work steps. Resulting in optimization of procedures and costs, both privately and publicly,

AI (Artificial Intelligence) can in turn allow anomalous data to surface, just as it has proven useful in another topical context (early diagnosis of Covid-19 positive cases). (7) Cameras in slaughterhouses as well as dozens of other survey tools usable in IoT logic already exist, it is just a matter of developing useful IT architecture models to network information, through inter-operable systems and bring out anomalies.

In conclusion, it is time to move beyond the season of stamped papers, the future is present and regulations for once should accompany or perhaps precede it rather than chase it.

#it’s going to be all right

Dario Dongo and Camilla Fincardi

Notes

(1) Reg. EU 2020/466, Recital 2

(2) Reg. EU 2017/625, art. 141,

(3) Reg. (EU) no. 2017/625, Recital 12

(4) Idem c.s., art. 2.

(5) Ibid, art. 6.

(6) Reg. EU 2020/466, Recitals 1, 3

(7) Feng, Cong & Huang, Zhi & Chen, Xin & Zhai, Yongzhi & Zhu, Feng & Chen, Hua & Wang, Yingchan & Su, Xiangzheng & Huang, Sai & Tian, Lin & Zhu, Weixiu & Sun, Wenzheng & Zhang, Liping & Han, Qingru & Zhang, Juan & Pan, Fei & Chen, Li & Zhu, Zhihong & Li, Tanshi. (2020). A Novel Triage Tool of Artificial Intelligence Assisted Diagnosis Aid System for Suspected COVID-19 pneumonia In Fever Clinics. 10.1101/2020.03.19.20039099.

Zirui Meng, Minjin Wang, Huan Song, Shuo Guo, Yanbing Zhou, Weimin Li, Yongzhao Zhou, Mengjiao Li, Xingbo Song, Yi Zhou, Qingfeng Li, Xiaojun Lu, Binwu Ying. Development and utilization of an intelligent application for aiding COVID-19 diagnosis. MedRxiv (pre-published study awaiting peer-review). doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.18.20035816