Official public audits in decline, the BEUC report

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Official public inspections of the agribusiness supply chain are in dramatic decline. In some cases, the debacle has already become apparent in the form of food scandals. Fipronil eggs, salmonella infant milk, meats unfit for human consumption. Elsewhere, the bar of scrutiny continues to drop dangerously low. The European scenario is outlined by BEUC, the organization of European consumer associations, in the report‘Keeping food in check.'(1)

The BEUC report

BEUC’s study analyzes official public inspection data from 12 European countries. The result is that-with few exceptions-public human and financial resources for ensuring food safety are decreasing throughout the EU, as are the number of controls. Also on the supply chains of animal products (meat, eggs and dairy products).

Comparing data from different member states is a complex task, the organization explains. In fact, each member country is required to submit an annual report to the European Commission on the implementation of their national plans of official public controls (number and type of controls, irregularities detected, etc.). But in the absence of a common standard, the relations of the various states are in fact incomparable.

The unevenness of the data is expected to be superseded in the coming years. In fact, the new regulation on official public controls introduces a standard template for Member States’ annual reporting. (2) The novelty will also leave no alibi for the coordination failures of the European Commission. Which is supposed to submit an annual report on official controls, but in the last five years has published only one report (!).(3)

Resources in vertical fall, food security at risk

The reduction in resources and quantity of official controls affects most member states. In some cases, with already manifest effects in terms of recurrence of food security crises and inability to manage them.

Belgium is a case in point of the correlation between resource cuts and food scandals. The FASFC, Belgium’s federal food safety agency, has continued to reduce controls for years, strangled by budget cuts that began in 2012 and culminated in 2017 with a cut of €1.78 million.

Only after two food scandals did the government backtrack. In 2017, eggs contaminated with the insecticide fipronil flooded all over Europe. The following year, thanks to a wholesale buyer’s report, it was then discovered that one of the national leaders in the meat industry (holding a significant 30 percent market share) was falsifying labels to put food unfit for human consumption on the market.

The media pillory convinced the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture to increase the FASFC budget by 2 million euros. A figure that, moreover, represents only 10% of the budget cuts suffered by the agency over the past 5 years.

Poland and France, beef and baby milk at risk

Poland-which ranks among the leaders in beef production and exports in Europe-is a major player in the collapse of public veterinary services. In just one year, the government cut the number of official public inspectors (-18 percent) and public veterinarians (-24 percent). It is therefore not surprising that in 2019, local broadcaster TVN 24 documented the slaughter of sick cattle, sometimes not even able to stand. (3) The distribution of those meats affected 15 other member countries. And in the European Commission’s subsequent audit, better late than never,‘serious deficiencies in the implementation of […] official controls in the allegedly implicated slaughterhouse‘ were in fact revealed.

France is another player in the generalized breakdown of official public controls. From 2010 to 2015, public enforcement spending was cut by 75 million euros (-13%). And the staff, in turn, has been drastically downsized (-9.3 percent, from 2009 to 2016). In late 2017, Lactalis-one of the world’s largest dairy groups-marketed infant milk contaminated with Salmonella, causing dozens of toxins among toddlers. The alert involved 83 countries and resulted in the recall of 12 million packages of infant formula. (4) And the French Senate, following an investigation into the matter, pointed out that continued cuts in food controls have weakened the food safety assurance system.

Southern Europe, the boulder ofausterity on food safety

In Greece-since 2010, the year of the outbreak of the crisis over public debt (5)-there has been a yearly difficulty in fulfilling the plan of controls on the agribusiness chain. As expected, due to repeated cuts in staff and resources. The health risk is greatest in the area of foods of animal origin. In 10 years, inspections of meat production and cutting plants have been reduced by 80 percent (from 3,416 in 2008 to 754 in 2017). And the annual frequency of inspections in meat processing companies dropped from 7.2 to 0.66 (-91%).

There has also been a dramatic decline in inspections in Italy over the past decade, -57%. In 2008 about one-third of businesses were inspected (407,128 visits out of 1,200,932 active businesses), in 2017 just 14.7 percent (176,217 inspections out of 1,192,561 businesses).

In Spain the decline was more moderate, if not negligible. Between 2010 and 2017, official public inspection staff decreased by 7.2 percent (from 6,318 to 5,863) and inspections by 8.6 percent. From the tight control that saw every food establishment inspected at least once a year in 2012, only 8 out of 10 establishments were inspected in 2017. So much was enough to cause 500 Listeria toxins last summer.

Northern Europe, homogeneous cuts

In Germany, controls have dropped. In the decade from 2007 to 2017, with an almost stable business population (about 1.21 million), inspections decreased by 22 percent. And the frequency of inspections has decreased in correspondence, from 1.7 visits/year per establishment (2007) to 1.5 (2017).

In the UK, the number of inspection staff was reduced by more than a quarter (26.4 percent) in the decade 2008-2017. This compares with a 13 percent increase in food businesses (up to 73,130). And due to inadequate staffing, several local authorities fail to conduct any sampling (there were 14 in 2016-2017, 16 more in the following year). In less than a decade, the total number of samplings has decreased by 44 percent, from more than 105,000 (2009-10) to just under 60,000 (2016-17).

In Ireland, official public inspection staffing was reduced by 10 percent, between 2012 and 2016. The most drastic cut, 28 percent (from 445 to 319), affected veterinarians assigned to inspections in the most sensitive productions (meat, milk, eggs). To compensate for the cracks and continue supervision in the slaughterhouses, retired staff were thus hired on temporary contracts.

Two happy islands, but not too happy

The Netherlands and Austria, bucking the trend, have increased the staff and budget devoted to official public inspections. According to BEUC, however, the resources are still not commensurate with the needs.

In the Netherlands, the number of food control employees increased by 11 percent between 2012 and 2017, and the budget of the Dutch Food Safety Authority grew by 49.6 percent. Nevertheless, according to the Dutch annual report, resources were insufficient to cover some training and targeted inspection projects.

In Austria, official inspections of food businesses remained stable (43,581 inspections of 33,187 operators in 2018, compared with 43,529 of 33,987 businesses in 2010). Veterinary inspections in milk plants alone (from 3,501 in 2010 to 2,259 in 2018) have decreased, however, in proportion to the decline in active enterprises. On the other hand, doubtful, because it is poorly documented, is the control activity on meat processing plants. The only available data, according to BEUC, reports a reduction in inspections by nearly two-thirds between 2010 and 2018.

Notes

(1) SEE https://www.beuc.eu/publications/beuc-x-2019-061_report_keeping_food_in_check.pdf

(2) See reg. EU 2017/625 on official public controls, effective 14.12.19. On the subject, see previous articles, https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/sicurezza/controlli-ufficiali-schema-di-decreto-da-rivedere and https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/etichette/controlli-il-ruolo-dellamministrazione-sanitaria/

(3) European Commission, ‘Report on the overall operation of official controls performed in the Member States (2014-2016) to ensure the verification of compliance with food and feed law, animal health and welfare rules‘, COM (2018) 627, September 2018.

https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0627&from=en

(3) SEE https://www.greenme.it/mangiare/allerte-alimentari/carne-mucche-malate-polonia/

(4) SEE https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/lactalis-salmonella-ai-neonati

(5) In the fall of 2009, then-Prime Minister George Papandreou declared that budgets submitted to the European Union by previous governments had been falsified in order to obtain the country’s entry into the Eurozone. And that was the beginning of the end. V. https://www.internazionale.it/notizie/2015/07/13/crisi-greca-cronologia

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".