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Food Safety – Who Does What?

A great many of public services and institutions, from municipal authorities to the World Health Organisation WHO, contribute to making foodstuffs safer. The following text presents some important actors on the German national and the European scale.

The German federal states (Bundesländer)

Competence for official food surveillance in Germany lies with the federal states (Bundesländer). Official surveillance is co-ordinated by the respective state ministries or, in city-states, by the respective senate administration department.

Food control and veterinary offices of districts and towns with independent administration take samples and inspect food business establishments. Official surveillance covers all levels of food production, including producer and processing establishments as well as storage, transport and sale of food products, or gastronomic businesses. Businesses are inspected periodically without prior notice, or after receiving hints from consumers or other parties concerned. Establishments with an incident record are inspected more often.

The authorities watch compliance with legal regulations concerning the composition, harmlessness to health, and correct labelling of foodstuffs. Inspections centre on hygienic conditions and other food safety aspects, including establishments’ in-house control systems. Analyses are made for pathogenic germs, residues of plant protection products, heavy metals, and other undesirable substances. If there are findings that legal requirements are not being met, food control services lodge a formal complaint about the product, or even have it removed from sale if the product poses a health hazard.

Local food control or veterinary services are the address to turn to if consumers feel that a certain food might pose a risk to health or not meet legal requirements in any respect. The services are obliged to pursue such complaints.

The Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection

The main concerns of the food, agrarian and consumer policies of the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection are preventive health protection of consumers, quality assurance, and food production in a way which takes account of environmental and animals’ needs. Agencies and institutions in the ministry’s fields of activity include, among others, the Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, BfR), the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), the Federal Agency of Crop Plant Varieties (Bundessortenamt), and four federal research centres. The ministry also supervises five institutions under public law, which include the above-named Federal Institute of Risk Assessment, the Federal Agency of Agriculture and Food (Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung, BLE), and the Marketing Promotion Funds for German wines, agricultural and food products, and wood and timber.

The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL)

The BVL contributes to developing general administrative provisions and surveillance programmes, and assists the federal states as a co-ordinating and managing office for various programmes, including for the Work Panel of Food Chemistry Experts and its working sub-groups on genetically engineered foods, dietetic foods, and cosmetic products.
The BVL also co-ordinates a working group on stable isotopes analytics which is used to determine the geographical origin of foodstuffs.

The BVL is the German national contact point in the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed. It receives federal states’ notifications of products which are potentially hazardous to consumers’ health. Notifications are checked and completed where necessary, and then dispatched to the European Commission, which distributes the information to all EU Member States.

The other way round, the BVL informs the competent supreme authorities of the federal states of rapid alert notifications received via the European Commission from other EU Member States.

The BVL conceives measures to prevent emergence of crises, or to help minimise risks to consumers and economic damage if crisis has occurred. It monitors potential fields of problem from where crises might emanate, and develops procedures to identify risk trigger factors. It has built up an internet-based professional information system to be able to communicate fast and efficiently with other authorities of the Federal Government and the states.

Food crises of recent years were caused by contaminated feed. The BVL is concerned with a number of feed safety issues to the end of enhancing safety of our foodstuffs.

The Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR)

The BfR works out reports and opinions on issues of food safety and health protection of consumers on the basis of internationally recognised scientific evaluation criteria. The institute is independent in its scientific opinions. It brings proposals for risk reduction on the basis of its risk analysis. The BfR’s evaluations are written in a way that they are transparent and reproducible for the public, for experts, and for other somehow interested parties. Evaluation results are available to the public, while confidentiality of protected data is assured.

The customs

The customs may stop and check food consignments crossing the German border. In case of food law violations, the customs inform the competent authorities in the Bundesländer. In some cases it is mandatory to produce food consignments at a customs office for safety reasons, when national or EU food control authorities have prior information that the food in question may contain undesirable substances or contaminants. For such products, the importer has to bring proof by laboratory report that the product is in perfect condition. Foodstuffs which do not meet legal conditions must either be destroyed or re-exported. The customs authorities are subordinate to the Federal Ministry of Finance.

The European Commission’s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate General

The Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General (SANCO) is part of the European Commission and responsible for the fields of public health, food safety, and matters of consumer protection. SANCO produces proposals for legal regulations, political measures, and action programmes, and is responsible for implementing the resolutions of the European Parliament and the Council concerning health and consumer protection. SANCO is in charge of risk management in the food sector on EU level.

The European Food and Veterinary Office (FVO)

The Ireland-based Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) is a service of the European Commission and watches implementation and compliance with Community law in the Member States, for instance by sending inspection teams there. The BVL is the national co-ordination office for these inspections and assists in the preparation, performance, and follow-up work of inspections in close co-operation with the competent authorities in the Bundesländer.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advises the European Commission in all fields of food and feed safety, animal health, crop protection, and nutrition, and works out scientific opinions on relevant issues. EFSA delivers scientific analyses and information which serve as an orientation for organisations, authorities, and politicians in developing Community law.
EFSA is headquartered in Parma, Italy.

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