With only 2,100 public employees in food safety, France is well below the European average: “100,000 people work directly or indirectly in food safety in the EU. As France represents one eighth of the European population, it should employ around 12,000 people”, according to the report.
Written by Marion Guillou and Christian Babusiaux, former directors of the two main food safety departments in France - Directorate General for Food (DGAL), Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) -, the document underlines the constant reduction of controls over the past seven years.
Since 2007, DGCCRF has lost 10% of its workforce, mostly because of positions left unfilled after retirements, whereas DGAL underwent a 6.8% reduction during the same period. As a result, the number of controls has plummeted 20% from 2009 to 2013, mostly in abattoirs, restaurants and supermarkets.
A threat for the future
“The obvious underinvestment in food safety exposes the country to a health hazard, and to economic risks with its commercial partners. Changing the paradigm is becoming urgent, maintaining the means of controlling food safety should be considered a minimum”, says the report.
After stagnation in 2014, the government decided to increase its food safety workforce by 60 employees in 2015. “It’s a good symbol, but of course it will not compensate for the loss of 1,000 full-time equivalents these last years”, said Laurent Lasne, president of the National Syndicate of Veterinary Public Health Inspectors (SNISPV).
As for food safety itself, the number of foodborne outbreaks constantly increased over the past decade, from 624 in 2004 to 1,320 in 2013. “In the past, this increase might have been linked to a better detection, but that may no longer be the case more recently”, according to the report.
According to Lasne, “no one can say whether the link is causal or not, but the figures on the workforce diminishing; outbreaks, Campylobacter and Listeria rising coincide in a strange way”.
A complex architecture
Another problem highlighted in the report is the difficulty between the different administrations in charge of food safety. This “program 206” is dispatched between the ministry of agriculture (DGAL), the ministry of economy and finances (DGCCRF, Customs services) and the ministry of health.
To make things simpler, all local administrations were revamped in 2010, with a food safety directorate at the lower level (“départment”), with two directorates at the intermediate level (“région”) - one for the ministry of agriculture, the other for the ministry of economy and finances.
“This organization does not work well, and is a source of dissatisfaction for employees working at local and regional levels”, says the report.
According to the SNISPV, the dialogue between the ministries of agriculture and economy, known to be difficult, is one of the reasons why the report, first announced in December 2012, was not written and published until now.
Nearly one year was needed to write the “lettre de mission”, a “letter of appointment” (an official document by which ministers ask a person, or group of persons, to fulfil a mission, for example to write a report) to Guillou and Babusiaux.
It had to be signed by four ministers and state secretaries, who, according to the SNISPV, had divergent opinions on the terms and conditions of the document.'
Romain Loury is a freelance journalist, formerly of APM news agency, based in Montpellier, France.