The European Commission today (6 May) unveiled a proposal to simplify European Union regulation of the plant and animal food chain by increasing harmonisation of registration, fines, surveillance and compensation.
Regulation of the food chain is currently largely national, covered by almost 70 pieces of legislation. The proposal would reduce this to five pieces of legislation in an effort to reduce the red tape involved. The proposal would also eliminate the wide differences that have developed between member states in some areas.
Tonio Borg, European commissioner for health, said the recent scandal over processed beef tainted with horse meat showed that an upgrade of EU rules is needed. For instance, current rules only ask member states to institute fines for food fraud that are “appropriate and dissuasive”. This vague provision has been interpreted differently by member states, resulting in widely varying fine levels that are sometimes lower than the profit potential for fraud, such as diluting beef with horsemeat which is cheaper.
The new rules would specifically require that member states set fines that are equal to the potential economic gain to be made from fraud. “Crime must not pay,” said Borg. “If penalties are low, it does pay.”
The new rules would also allow the EU to require member states to carry out specific surveillance during a food crisis. After horsemeat was discovered in processed beef products earlier this year, the Commission was only able to request that member states carry out DNA tests on their beef. The Commission wants to formalise this process.
The proposal would also introduce a system of mutual recognition for the registration and marketing of plant reproductive material. Registration is currently national, forcing companies to register in each country they want to market their seeds in. Under the proposal, a single authorisation in one member state could be recognised across the EU.
Some farming and seed groups have warned that the proposal would increase the burden on small niche seedgrowers and could even lead to a situation where private gardeners would have to pay fees. But Borg said this was a misperception. “Today, all seeds including traditional seeds and niche seeds, have to be registered under national legislation,” he said. “This is not increasing the burden, it's lightening it.”
Borg pointed out that private individuals and small companies with less than 10 employees will be exempt from the registration fees.
But agricultural campaign group IFOAM EU said this was not enough. “The Commission proposal sticks to a bureaucratic approach where all operators including farmers and gardeners who sell seed for non-commercial purposes would have to register," said Andrea Ferrante, vice president of IFOAM EU. "It is now time for farmers and citizens to mobilise and demand that their politicians put agro-biodiversity at the heart of the seed legislation."
Ilse Aigner, the German minister for consumer protection, said today that she welcomes the Commission proposal.