Documents considered by the Committee on 26 January 2011 - European Scrutiny Committee Contents

9   Effectiveness of control on imports of food, feed, animals and plants



COM(10) 785

Commission Report on the effectiveness and consistency of sanitary and phytosanitary controls on imports of food, feed, animals and plants

Legal base
Document originated21 December 2010
Deposited in Parliament5 January 2011
DepartmentEnvironment, Food & Rural Affairs
Basis of considerationEM of 18 January 2011
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in CouncilNo date set
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared


9.1  In December 2008, the Council invited the Commission to produce a report by the end of 2010 on the effectiveness and consistency of sanitary and phytosanitary controls on imports of food, feed, animals and plants, with a view to continuing a well-functioning Community framework on imports, along with proposals, if appropriate. The Commission has now sought to meet that request in this document.

The current document

9.2  The Commission notes that the EU is the world's largest importer of food and feed, and that, whilst it is mainly self-sufficient for most products, it needs to import those where there is little or no domestic production, or where production falls short of demand. It also points out that the food industry is the EU's largest manufacturing sector, employing over four million people and with an annual global turnover of €900 billion, and is thus pivotal to its prosperity. At the same time, the Commission notes that the industry needs to rely on inputs from around the world, whilst having in place food standards which enable it to remain competitive and to enjoy the confidence of European consumers: and it points out that, notwithstanding the recent global downturn, trade in agricultural goods has grown rapidly, and that, as a result, there has been increasing attention given to the potential risks this presents to human, animal and plant health.

9.3  The Commission says that the role of the EU is to ensure that all food on the market, including imports, is safe, and that, in order to achieve this, it has in place a comprehensive body of legislation — underpinned by a harmonised and risk-based approach — to identify hazards to human, animal and plant health associated with particular products from a third country at any point in time, and to put in place any controls found to be necessary. In particular, import conditions are established in the light of a variety of factors, including the guarantees offered by the control systems in place in other countries, and the inspections carried out in those countries and in Member States: and it adds that, whilst the vast majority of EU imports do not pose a significant health hazard, there are a number of products for which specific, harmonised measures are established at EU level, which require controls to be performed prior to their import.

9.4  The Commission also points out that the way in which the EU applies its regime determines how far it is able to maintain an open and science-based approach in this area, and that the controls it sets are consistent with the relevant international standards established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). It adds that, whilst governments may take additional measures, these are permissible only where they can be proved to be science-based, proportional and non-discriminatory, and that the EU is committed to complying with its international obligations, bearing in mind that its requirements often serve as benchmarks for international trade and have a huge impact on those developing countries which are highly dependent on access to its markets.


9.5  The Commission points out that food safety requirements are enshrined in Regulation (EC) No 178/2002[46] (the General Food Law), which is complemented by Regulation (EC) No 882/2004[47] (the Official Food and Feed Controls Regulation). More specifically, it notes that the latter measure provides the general principles underlying the establishment of import conditions, the recognition of equivalence, and the approval of pre-export controls by third countries, as well as tasking the Commission with specific duties relating to the collection of information and inspections in third countries. In addition, detailed provisions governing imports are provided for in an extensive set of sectoral measures in such areas as plant health, seeds, zoonoses, animal diseases, animal by-products, food and feed hygiene, genetically modified food and feed, residues and contaminants, pesticides, additives, nutrients, dietetic foods, mineral waters, novel foods, and food contact materials.

9.6  The Commission notes that different products pose different risks and are subject to specific import conditions and controls. Thus:

  • live animals and products of animal origin, as well as products (such as embryos) not intended for human consumption, are considered to be a high risk because they can be vectors for the transmission of diseases: consequently, they can only enter the EU through approved border inspection posts under strictly harmonised conditions, including being sourced from approved third countries, from approved or registered establishments, and accompanied by signed veterinary certificates confirming their conformity with various conditions, and with mandatory physical and documentary checks being carried out at border inspection posts, following which a Common Veterinary Entry Document is issued allowing the goods to be released for free circulation;
  • imports of live plants or plant products are also considered to be of high risk due to the possibility of introducing new pests and plant diseases, and they too must be accompanied by an official certificate (based on a model set out under the IPPC), with checks being carried out an approved Point of Entry (unless a derogation is granted allowing this to be done at the place of destination);
  • certain food and feed of non-animal origin which carries a known risk is also subject to mandatory pre-import controls at Designated Points of Entry, the list of commodities and the applicable level of controls being reviewed on a quarterly basis.

The Commission also notes that most food chain products (such as canned, processed and dried foods, and fruit and vegetables) are considered not to pose an intrinsic risk to public, animal or plant health, and that any controls are carried out by Member States on the basis of their multi-annual control plans.


9.7  The Commission says that its own Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) carries out inspections in both Member States and third countries on the basis of an annual plan, pooling its own experience with the views of Member States to establish priorities, thus allowing prompt action to be taken to tackle any unacceptable risk; that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provides it with independent scientific advice on all matters affecting the safety of the food chain; that the Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES) provides on-line information of import consignments of live animals and animal products, allowing exchanges of information between competent authorities; and that the EU has in place two alert systems to provide a rapid and effective exchange of information.

9.8  It adds that the EU plays an active role in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as well as in international standard-setting bodies, permitting it to promote its own regulatory model and thus shape international standards. In addition, it maintains an ongoing dialogue with third countries and engages in bilateral agreements governing trade in agricultural products, whilst the Official Food and Feed Controls Regulation provides for "equivalence" to be recognised unilaterally by the EU in any area of the food chain. The Commission also highlights the efforts it has made to improve food safety training for Member States' competent authorities, and the extent to which it has held regular discussions with Member States on any new or emerging problems of particular concern, stressing the importance of close relations if there is to be a rapid response to breaches.


9.9  The Commission says that recent and emerging issues include the increasing extent to which disproportionate and unscientific sanitary and phytosanitary measures are being used for protectionist purposes, and it highlights the challenges posed by new diseases such as BSE and variants of avian flu, together with the changing patterns of disease incidence and spread as a result of changing climate conditions, and by new technologies and new generations of food and feed ingredients (where it believes that managing consumers' risk perception is becoming increasingly important). It also identifies the potentially major risks to public health from bio-terrorism involving the use of food borne viruses and pathogens,which it says has increased the need the vigilance in the control of imports, and it says that, at a time when financial and other resources are increasingly scarce, it is imperative that controls are concentrated in areas of most benefit, with new information technologies (such as electronic certification) being used more fully, and greater coordination between animal and public health controls at EU borders.


9.10  The Commission says that, although the present risk and evidenced-based approach has worked well to date, the different approaches to controls of food, feed, animals and plants makes it very complex to administer, despite the additional overall coherence provided by the General Food Law and the Official Food and Feed Controls Regulation. It therefore believes that there is a need to streamline the control system by improving the assessment of risk and the consistency and efficiency of the mechanisms in place. It says that this would involve:

  • Legislative improvements

The Commission says that changes to the Official Food and Feed Controls Regulation are planned as part of the wider initiative to re-cast and simplify EU legislation, in order to ensure an integrated approach to official controls in all areas, including the rules governing the financing of official controls, those applicable to controls on residues of veterinary medicines, and to veterinary controls on imports of live animals and products of animal origin. In addition, there will be a new Animal Health Law, based on the Animal Health Strategy for 2007-13, and involving the principle of prevention, disease surveillance, and minimising the impact of disease outbreaks, thus replacing a series of inter-related policy actions by a single regulatory framework. It also says that a harmonised EU framework for responsibility and cost-sharing will be developed, and that the EU's plant health regime will be comprehensively reviewed in the light of the various developments which have taken place since the 1970s, including enlargement, globalisation, climate change, and a significant evolution of the scientific expertise underpinning the original regime.

  • Non-legislative improvements

The Commission says that its Food and Veterinary Office will continue to inform decisions relating to risk and to ensuring consistent follow-up of country and establishment listings; that TRACES will be upgraded and extended to new users, including third countries; that the EU's two rapid alert systems could become the start of a broader mechanism to ensure the traceability of border controls for all imports of food, feed, animals and plants; and that the EU will continue its dialogue with third countries at both bilateral and multilateral levels to ensure that concerns in this area are dealt with in an open and transparent manner.

  • Optimal use of resources

The Commission says that, because of resource constraints, the optimal allocation of resources for controls is necessary, with a targeting of control measures, enabling enforcement authorities to concentrate their efforts where the risk is highest.

The Government's view

9.11  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 18 January 2011, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Mr Jim Paice) says that there are no policy implications in respect of animal imports, but that, in the case of plant health, the EU's regime is currently under review. He adds that the UK is playing a full part in this review, and is pursuing three main aims — faster decision making as plant health risks change and new pests emerge; better risk targeting, including regionalisation where appropriate, and a shift of inspection effort from plant produce (e.g. fruit) to plants and propagating material prior to placing on the market; and more co-operation between plant health inspectorates, and between plant health and customs services.

9.12  The Minister also suggests that the statement in the report that phytosanitary controls in the area of plant health are "above all safe" overstates the effectiveness of the present regime, pointing out the main driver for the current review is that the controls have not prevented the entry of numerous pests and diseases. He says that in part these shortcomings stem from the failure of Member States to implement the current regime, due mainly to a lack of resources, but that, more fundamentally, the regime's very open nature allows imports to take place unregulated until a problem is identified, by which time a pest or disease may have entered and become established. He is also concerned that, although consignments of live plants and certain plant products have to be accompanied by a Phytosanitary Certificate issued by the competent authority in the exporting country, the inspection of the consignment prior to its issue must be thorough and depends on the exporting country's inspectors having a clear understanding of the EU's complex import requirements, which he believes is frequently not the case.

9.13  More generally, the Minister says that the competent authorities responsible for phytosanitary controls within the UK are concerned about the tone and content of the report, and will focus efforts in the current review on pressing for a more effective system, which addresses these shortcomings and targets proportionate controls at those trades representing the highest risks. He also suggests that the review and its findings are subject to wide public consultation, and should lead in 2012 to proposals for legislative change.


9.14  This Report provides a useful overview of the current arrangements governing imports of food, feed, animals and plants into the EU, and of the issues which the Commission believes should be addressed in order to improve and strengthen those controls. It is therefore a document of some interest, and, for that reason, we are drawing it to the attention of the House.

9.15  In doing so, we note that, whilst the Government does not think that the document has any policy implications in the case of animal imports, it believes that the Commission has overstated the effectiveness of the present plant health regime. In view of this, we did consider whether there would be a case for referring the Communication for debate in European Committee. Having said that, we note that the Government will be focussing its efforts in the current review of that regime on pressing for a more effective system, in the expectation that there will be proposals for legislative change in 2012, and, on balance, we are content to await the outcome of that process. We are accordingly clearing the current document.

46   OJ No. L.31, 1.2.02, p.1. Back

47   OJ No. L.165, 30.4.04, p.1. Back

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