In its opinion, the Parliament largely endorses the basic principles underlying the new hygiene rules. These aim to introduce a systematic and all embracing hygiene regime covering all food in all sectors. They also replace a patchwork set of rules for specific sectors and types of produce with gaps notably at primary production level (i.e. farms).
"Sound effective hygiene rules are the bottom line to ensure safe food. I welcome the excellent work undertaken by the EP to further improve our proposals", said David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. "I am particularly grateful that the need for flexibility has been generally endorsed. Throughout the Union, there are longstanding cultural traditions with regard to food and food preparation that I am keen to protect and encourage. Producers of such traditional food make an enormous contribution to our cultural diversity, through enabling us to enjoy a wide variety of foods and flavours. The rules on food hygiene as agreed today are flexible enough to ensure that these traditions are preserved."
A basic 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 is already in place in parts of the food industry, but not yet in others, for example in egg processing factories. 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 businesses 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. Although the Parliament has accepted a number of amendments that aim to introduce HACCP at farm level, the Commission believes that full HACCP implementation is over-ambitious in the farming context.
Another key principle is the compulsory registration of all food businesses. Such registration will allow competent authorities to better organise their controls.
These principles together with the key principles of traceability and the withdrawal from the market of food presenting a serious risk to consumer health (as already laid down in the General Food Law) will constitute a coherent set of rules that will lead to enhanced consumer protection.
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, mountain areas and other geographically isolated regions. "The responsibility for adapting the rules to such local situations is to be 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.
The opinion delivered by the European Parliament today confirms the Commission view that flexibility is necessary to safeguard traditional methods of food production and also for regions suffering from geographical constraints. The leading principles for implementing flexibility are subsidiarity and transparency. This will allow adaptation of the rules openly without compromising the basic objectives of food hygiene. The European Parliament has also introduced a streamline procedure for the registration of food businesses. This simplification is a welcome move towards less bureaucracy and more effective management of the food safety system.
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 and controls.
The opinion of the European Parliament also clarifies the scope of the food hygiene proposals with regard to game meat. The Commission is happy to accept the clarification that game meat delivered in small quantities to the consumer or to the local retail trade will remain a matter of national law.
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. The Commission is particularly pleased that the European Parliament acknowledges the need for Regulations in matters of food hygiene as opposed to a looser framework of Directives. Given that in the past food hygiene rules were not always uniformly implemented across the Member States, it is hoped that this approach will achieve the objective of more uniform implementation. The proposals are next to be discussed by the Council and to be finalised and adopted in co-decision procedure.