The most radical shake up for 25 years of the European Union's food hygienerules was announced by Ireland's Commissioner David Byrne last July. Althoughthe aim is that these new rules should not come into operation until 1 January2004, it is useful for wholesalers, suppliers and retailers in the food sectorto know what is in the pipeline for their particular businesses, writes Raymond O'Rourke. Three basic principles underpin the five draft legislative proposals publishedby Commissioner Byrne and which now must be adopted jointly by the Council andthe European Parliament: 1. EU food hygiene rules are now to cover the entire food chain "from farmto fork". 2. Primary responsibility will be placed upon all in the food chain - farmers,wholesalers, distributors and retailers to ensure food is safe, by utilisingown-checking programmes like HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical ControlPoints). 3. All food and food ingredients to be "traceable", through theestablishment of coherent traceability schemes throughout the EuropeanUnion. One of the major changes introduced by Commissioner Byrne is that own-checkHACCP schemes will now be mandatory for everyone in the food chain, startingwith farmers and ending with the small grocery shop. Wholesalers, suppliersand retail shops will all be obliged to keep records of the various HACCPchecks they carry out and they will need to design a specific monitoringprogramme in conjunction with their staff, so that corrective action can betaken immediately a food hygiene problem is detected. The procedures mustpermit the foodstuff to be withdrawn from the market immediately. TheCommission proposals though are flexible especially in relation to smallenterprises, permitting sectors such as the grocery trade to establish theirown Codes of Practice in relation to food hygiene own-checks once those Codesdo not undermine food safety. Recent food emergencies have demonstrated that the identification of theorigin of food and food ingredients is of prime importance for consumerprotection. Commissioner Byrne's proposals make the registration of all foodbusinesses mandatory as a means of establishing the traceability of food andfood ingredients. The idea is that each food business will be allocated aregistration number by a competent national authority and that this numberwill follow a food product throughout the food chain until purchased byconsumers. Member States may also introduce an approval system for new foodbusinesses entering the marketplace and this approval number will also followthe product, as it does at present under EU law in the case ofslaughterhouses. At present in Ireland various food businesses such as Butchers, Wholesalers,Wholesalers, Hotels and Take Aways must be registered with their localRegional Health Authority. This will not change, but what is likely is thatthe registration process may become more stringent and it will cover everypossible link in the food chain. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is alsolikely to be given an oversight and enforcement role to ensure that the newregistration process and traceability systems established under these new EUfood hygiene rules are implemented adequately in Ireland. Allied to HACCP and traceability systems the EU intends introducing FoodSafety Objectives (FSOs) in the food hygiene field. The Commissionbelieves that by setting 'objectives' such as targets and/or performancestandards for food hygiene, rather than concentrating on detailed descriptivelegislative measures, food operators will be given a degree of flexibility toattain the highest food safety standards without needing to follow thelegislation word for word. The overriding principle in connection with FSOsthough is that the food operator is responsible for placing safe food on themarket. However, since FSOs have to be based on sound scientific advice, aswell as careful risk management, the Commission does not introduce any FSOs inthe present proposals, but rather lays down a procedure including the use ofthe EU Standing Food & Veterinary Committees by which they can be establishedin the future. It is likely therefore that FSOs will have been established forvarious food sectors by the time these proposals become law in 2004. These proposals will place increased obligations on food businesses especiallyin relation to the keeping of records and documents as part of the HACCP andtraceability procedures. Ultimately though, such obligations will be costlyespecially for small businesses like those in the grocery trade. TheCommission has no comments on who should pay for these additional food safetyprocedures. Food safety does not come cheap, therefore it will be interestingto see whether consumers will be prepared to pay higher prices in order thatthese new EU hygiene rules can be implemented so as to give them additionalfood safety protections than exist at present.
Raymond O' Rourke is a food law specialist atMason Hayes & Curran, Solicitors in Dublin.Mason Hayes & Curran, Solicitors is a fullservice business law firm with a large clientbase in the food, hotel, retail and cateringsectors. The firm established a Food Law Unitin 1999 under the management of Raymond O'Rourke, the author of "European Food Law" .