Recent food fraud incidents, like the horsemeat scandal in 2013, have severely damaged consumers’ trust in the European Union’s (EU) agro-food sector. As Then-Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy Tonio Borg pointed out in February 2013, the “issue before us today is […] overwhelmingly one of fraudulent labelling rather than one of safety”. Just a month earlier, the Food Standards Authority of Ireland had reported 37% of 27 sampled beef-burgers in supermarkets to contain horsemeat without proper declaration. Quickly, the problem became a European issue as controls in other Member States yielded similar results. Eventually, more than 50.000 tons of meat were declared unfit for human consumption and withdrawn from the market.
The scandal brought to the forefront the EU’s regulatory shortcomings with regard to food fraud. Neither EU’s General Food Law, nor the additional 70 pieces of food safety legislation tackle fraudulent practices to gain economically by intentionally deceiving consumers.
The horsemeat scandal put pressure on the EU to act
In March 2013, the EU Commission reacted swiftly with a five-point plan: initial actions included a mapping of existing tools and mechanisms to fight food fraud, to involve the European Union’s law enforcement agency Europol and to exchange information and alerts via the existing Rapid Alert System for Feed and Food (RASFF). In further steps the Commission established a coordinated testing programme for horse meat. The rules for horse passports also were mainstreaming EU-wide. Furthermore, a review of the rules on official controls was stipulated. Last but not least, a debate on the extension of mandatory origin labelling rules was triggered.
However, the horsemeat scandal revealed more fundamental problems of the European regulatory framework with regard to food fraud:
- As the responsibility for implementing and enforcing of EU food law lays with the Member States, controls are usually limited to the national level and an EU-wide cross-border overview is virtually non-existent. This becomes apparent in the lack of any statistics on the scale of food fraud within the EU.
- The resources dedicated to the European Food and Veterinary Office FVO, which conducts audits at the level of competent authorities in the Member States, limit the number of FVO inspections.
- Member States are reluctant to cooperate with Europol, although Europol observes a rise in cross-border food fraud and the involvement of organised crime.
The European Parliament criticized the situation, stepped up its pressure on government and concluded that competent authorities should change their attitudes towards a novel policing approach rather than keeping the administrative and veterinary approach applied in food safety regulation (2013-2091 (INI) EP, 4). The EP especially urged the Commission to develop a definition of food fraud within the legal framework. When the Commission in 2010 started its review of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 which regulates official food safety controls, it mentioned only simplification and clarification as the aims (the review is part of the so-called review package, replacing around 70 pieces of legislation by five new framework regulations; COM(2014) 264 and 265). As a result of the growing pressure, the ongoing process is now heavily influenced by the horsemeat scandal, foreseeing e.g. intensified controls when fraud is suspected (Art. 63).
First signs of institutional changes
Further signs of EU’s adaption to the risk posed by food fraud can be witnessed on the institutional level. Based on the framework of “Administrative Assistance and Cooperation” (established by Title IV of Regulation (EC) No 882/2014) a “Food Fraud Network” (FFN) has been established. It is composed of contact points (national authorities) from all 28 Member States, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, and the European Commission. They meet at least twice a year to increase cross-border cooperation and information exchange. This is a first step in the Commission’s approach to foster cooperation among inspection services, police and customs services as well as judicial services.
The network is triggered under the following conditions:
- a trans-border dimension of an incident;
- a violation of EU law;
- a suspicion of intentionality;
- economic gain for fraudsters is likely;
- and consumers are misled.
These criteria are close to the evolving definitions of food fraud on the international level. The FFN also established a working definition of food fraud as “intentional violation of the rules covered by Regulation 882/2004 which are applicable to the production of food and feed, motivated by the prospect of economic or financial gain”. In 2014, the FFN handled 60 cases mostly concerning labelling issues. The products mostly concerned were meat, fish and honey.
The anti-food fraud capabilities of the EU shall additionally be strengthened with the AAC system (Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system), a dedicated IT tool currently under development for notifying food fraud incidents similar to the RASFF-system.
Conclusion: (yet) a reactive ad-hoc approach
The horsemeat scandal did evoke action. Yet, the larger part of actions rather has an ad-hoc character. At the moment, the EU is reactive in the realm of food fraud, missing both the data and the instruments for proactive involvement. Whether a major reform of food legislation will take place remains to be seen with regard to the ongoing negotiations on the review package. Still, a common definition of food fraud is missing in the proposed legislation. At least, the IT systems under development promise to provide for statistics on food fraud and enhanced information sharing from late 2015 onwards. In December 2014, the Council of the European Union endorsed conclusions on “the role of law enforcement cooperation in combating food crime” recognising “the need for a police approach to the world of food safety”. After all, food fraud has become an important issue for the EU’s key policy makers.