Its judgement came in a case involving an Austrian supermarket and local food safety authorities.
They spot-checked a Tyrol branch of MPREIS Warenvertriebs and found that a vacuum-packed fresh turkey breast contained salmonella. The manager, Ute Reindl, was fined, and she appealed to an administrative tribunal in Tyrol.
It referred the case to the ECJ for guidance about the liability under EU food safety laws of retailers selling products made, processed and packaged by another organisation. The court’s ruling was unambiguous – retailers have a duty of care to their customers: "Fresh poultry meat referred to by EU law must satisfy the microbiological criteria for salmonella at all the stages of distribution including the retail sale stage."
It explained that, under the European Commission regulation (EC) No 2073/2005 on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs (as amended by regulation No 1086/2011), the concept of ‘products placed on the market’ refers to foodstuffs "held for the purpose of sale, distribution or other forms of transfer, which thereby includes retail sale". As a result, any failure to ensure compliance with microbiological standards at all stages of distribution (including the retail sale stage) "would amount to undermining one of the fundamental objectives of food safety legislation – that is, to attain a high level of protection of human health."
As for the fines, the court said EU member states had to set penalties for breaking European food laws, which are "effective, proportionate and dissuasive". And while it agreed that the Austrian system of fines might well protect human health, it told the Austrian court handling the case (the Unabhängiger Verwaltungssenat in Tirol) to assess whether the punishments for retailers selling third-party merchandise were perhaps too high: "The referring court must ensure that the system satisfies the criterion of proportionality."
The key EU food safety law is regulation (EC) No 178/2002 on general principles and requirements of food law, which established the European Food Safety Authority and laid down procedures regarding EU food safety. ECJ cases are legal precedents throughout the EU’s 28 member states.