This article was first published by IEG Policy Agribusiness on 7 February 2020
Katia Merten-Lentz of international law firm, Keller and Heckman, writes on how the EU is taking a broader approach to official controls in the food supply chain.
The Official Controls Regulation (EU) 2017/625 – the new OCR – entered into force on 14 December 2019. While the new OCR does not revolutionize the system in place, it provides certain key evolutions to ensure that food and feed are safe in the European Union.
Until the 13 December 2019, the EU system of official controls was governed by separate pieces of legislation which covered food and feed safety, plant health or animal-by-products.
The new OCR intends to simplify this complex framework by either repealing or amending the legislation to provide a coherent approach toward official controls along the entire agri-food chain.
It also extends the scope of the Official Control Regulation, which not only covers food and feed safety but also animal health requirements, animal welfare and protective measure against pests of plants. It also covers specific sectors such labeling and organic production.
This broader scope of the new OCR reflects the concept of control of the entire “agri-food chain”, including the objective to prevent the spread of animal diseases, in some cases transmissible to humans, or of pests injurious to plants or plant products, and to ensure the protection of the environment from risks that might arise from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or plant protection products .
Beyond food and feed safety from the traditional “farm to fork”, the new OCR also encompasses multidimensional aspects that includes our environment. However, this also entails the adoption of numerous technical measures which have not been directly integrated into the Regulation. Detailed measures will be adopted through implementing delegated acts, which reduce the visibility of the law when put into practice.
Risk based approach and transparency of official controls in the EU
The new OCR also provides a basis for a comprehensive risk-based approach along the agri-food chain, which means that the frequency of controls should be in accordance with to the risks linked to the specific product, process and FBO.
This principle now applies to all areas. The evaluation of the risk includes the operator’s past records of compliance and the reliability of its own checks as well as any information indicating the likelihood that consumers might be misled about e.g. the properties, quality or composition of the food.
In addition, FBOs must assist and cooperate with staff of the competent authorities in the accomplishment of their task and the competent authorities must provide a copy of the report to FBOs subject to an official control.
This reflects the ambition of the new OCR to make the official controls more efficient but also more transparent for the operators. However, the application of such principles will still rely on national administrative practices, which may be different from one country to another.
The inclusion of e-commerce and food fraud in the scope of official controls
Finally, the new OCR includes key provisions allowing the competent authorities to order products online without identifying themselves (“mystery shopping”) and brings fraudulent or deceptive practices in the food sector within in the scope of official controls.
But unfortunately, food fraud is still not clearly defined by the EU legislation, which makes it difficult to define fraudulent behavior within the food sector.
For sure, this new regulation will improve official control efficiency along the agri-food chain and strengthen legal certainty for both national authorities and food business operators. However, practice and time will say if this is enough to reach its ambitious objectives and whether the broad approach remains in coherence with the core objective of ensuring a high level of health within the EU.