"This package is of strategic importance in achieving my food safety objectives", said David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "The legislation as developed since 1964 in response to the emerging needs of the internal market took account of a high level of protection. But it was not designed to fit the high consumer health protection standards we have set ourselves for the new millennium. We have learnt our lesson from the food crises of the nineties. I am confident that with this systematic set of uniform rules we are laying the groundwork for filling the gaps in the existing legislation and enhancing food safety throughout the food chain. Food operators large and small will find this simplified and transparent set of rules easier to apply. They give them a clear responsibility for making sure food is safe, while leaving them more freedom and flexibility in deciding how to achieve that in their own premises."
The basic principles underlying the new hygiene rules are first the introduction of the farm to the table principle to hygiene policy. Currently there is no systematic and all embracing hygiene regime covering all food in all sectors, but rather a patchwork of rules for specific sectors and types of produce with gaps notably at primary production level (i.e. farms).
A second important the principle is the primary responsibility of food producers for the safety of food through the use of programmes for self-checking and modern hazard control techniques. The implementation of a harmonised Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system will become obligatory for all non-primary food operators. This type of self-checking programmes are already in place in parts of the food industry, notably in larger food factories, but were not yet required in for example slaughterhouses. HACCP prescribes a logical series of steps to identify throughout the production chain points where control is critical to food safety and to focus on the specific hazards particular to the business concerned.
In most food business checking the quality of raw materials, avoiding bacterial contamination (for example salmonella), maintaining the cold chain during storage and transport and appropriate anti-bacterial heat treatment are critical in controlling safety. Companies will be obliged to keep records of safety checks carried out under HACCP for surveillance purposes. On farms, Codes of Good Practice are to be used as the safety management instrument given that for the moment full HACCP implementation is considered over-ambitious in the farming context.
A third key principle is the traceability of all food and food ingredients. To achieve this compulsory registration of all food businesses is introduced. Such registration numbers must follow products. Record keeping enabling to identify suppliers of ingredients and foods is made obligatory. Producers must also put in place procedures for the withdrawal from the market of products presenting a serious risk to consumer health.
The basic hygiene rules which are part of standard operating procedures of food businesses cleanliness of premises, washing hands before handling food, etc remain as before.
The implementation of harmonised hygiene rules has in the past proved difficult in traditional food production and in food businesses in remote islands, secluded mountain areas and other geographically isolated regions. "The responsibility for adapting the rules to such local situations is left to Member States since they are better placed to judge and find appropriate solutions, provided the basic principle of food safety is not compromised", David Byrne said. "This is an issue that has been emphasised to me on visits to Member States and I am pleased to deliver on measures to introduce enhanced flexibility".
Implementation of a HACCP system implies the involvement of staff with specialised skills, which small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may not have. Therefore special arrangements to facilitate HACCP implementation in SMEs are foreseen, such as the development of sector specific codes of good hygienic practice. Such sectoral codes can give for example small cheese producers more detailed indications on hazards on controls.
Additional hygiene rules for food of animal origin
A second proposal for a regulation sets out specific additional hygiene rules for food of animal origin, such as meat and processed meat products, fishery products, dairy products etc. In comparison with the existing legislation which is in many respects very detailed and prescriptive, the new text introduces more flexibility.
The intention is that in the longer term, with the implementation of the HACCP framework further simplification will become feasible. At the same time new rules to reduce contamination of carcasses at slaughter are introduced, and a certain level of detail is maintained in view of the special risks in this area. The Commission will evaluate the experience with this more flexible approach to find the right balance between streamlining and the need for detailed rules.
Controls by national authorities
The third proposal logically regroups the obligations of the veterinary authorities in the Member States, thus making a start with the separation of responsibilities and with the introduction of the farm to fork principle. More updated inspection and control procedures for ante- and post mortem inspection of animals at slaughter are to be put forward within this framework on a solid scientific basis - as foreseen in the White Paper on Food safety for September 2001. The current proposal allows the Member States more flexibility in setting up veterinary controls. For example in meat cutting plants controls by trained meat inspectors acting under the responsibility of a qualified vet will be sufficient. A major Commission initiative to revamp food controls is scheduled in the White Paper for later this year.
The fourth proposal recasts, updates and improves the transparency of animal health measures which were scattered over seven different directives. Finally a proposal for a directive repeals 17 existing directives while leaving the implementing decisions in force.
The proposals take the form of Council and Parliament Regulations rather than Directives to ensure uniform application, better transparency and to facilitate rapid updating in the light of new technical and scientific developments. They are next to be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council and to be finalised and adopted in co-decision procedure. Commissioner Byrne is making a first presentation of the proposals to the Agriculture Council today.
The Regulations once adopted by EP and Council will replace Directive 9343/EEC on the hygiene of foodstuffs and 16 product specific Council Directives (see annex).