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Food safety – Who does what?

From city administrations to the World Health Organization (WHO), a great number of authorities and institutions contribute to making food safer. The following text outlines some of the important players.

The German federal states

Competence for official food control in Germany lies with the federal states. Official control is coordinated by the respective state ministry or, in city-states, by the respective senate administration department. The food control and veterinary offices of districts and towns with independent administration take samples locally and inspect food business establishments. Official control covers all levels of food production: producer and processing establishments as well as storage, transport and sale of food products as well as the food service sector. Businesses are inspected periodically without prior notice, or following consumers’ or third parties complaints. Establishments with a record of non-compliances are inspected more often.

The authorities monitor compliance with legal regulations governing the composition of foodstuffs, their safety in terms of human health and correct labelling. Inspections also focus on hygienic conditions and other food safety aspects, including in-house control systems in place at businesses. Analyses are conducted for pathogenic microorganisms, residues of plant protection products, heavy metals and other undesirable substances. The composition and labelling of products is also checked. If there are indications of infringement of existing regulations, an official complaint is made, and if the products pose a risk to health, they are removed from the market.

The local food control and veterinary offices are the authorities to contact if consumers feel that a certain product might pose a risk to health or not meet legal requirements. The competent authorities are to pursue such complaints.

An overview of the state ministries and senate administration departments can be found here.

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture

The three main objectives of the food, agricultural and consumer policies of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture are precautionary health protection for consumers, quality assurance and food production that takes account of environmental and animal needs. Agencies and institutions under the jurisdiction of the Ministry include, among others, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung, BfR), the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL), the Federal Office of Plant Varieties (Bundessortenamt), and four federal research institutes. The Ministry also supervises five legally independent institutions under public law, which include the marketing promotion fund for German wines, agricultural and food products, wood and timber, the Federal Office for Agriculture and Food and also the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment.

Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety

The BVL contributes to development of general administrative provisions and control as well as monitoring programmes, and assists the federal states as a coordinating office. The BVL is also the administrative office for the working group of official food chemistry experts and for its sub-working groups "Genetically modified foods", "Wine and spirits", "Diet foods" and "Cosmetic products" as well as for the working group of the official experts on food hygiene and food of animal origin and its subgroups "Hygiene and microbiology", "Immunology, serology and molecular biology", "Meat, meatproducts incl. labelling", "Fish, fishery products incl. labelling" and "Milk, dairy products and labelling".

The BVL is Germany's national contact point for the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed. It receives notifications from the federal states about products which are potentially hazardous to consumers’ health. These notifications are checked and supplemented where necessary, and then forwarded to the European Commission, which distributes the information to all EU Member States. In the opposite direction, 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 the emergence of crises, or to help to minimise risks to consumers and limit economic damage if a crisis has occurred. It monitors potential fields where problems might arise, and develops procedures to identify trigger factors for risks. It has set up an internet-based technical information system to be able to communicate quickly and efficiently with other authorities at state and federal level.

Major food crises of recent years were caused by contaminated feed. The BVL carries out many tasks concerning feed safety with the aim of enhancing the safety of our food.

Federal Institute for Risk Assessment

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) sets up reports and opinions on food safety and consumer health protection issues on the basis of internationally recognised scientific evaluation criteria. The BfR is independent in its scientific opinions. It makes proposals for reducing risk on the basis of its risk analysis. The BfR’s evaluations are written in such a way that they are transparent and comprehensible for the public, for experts and for any other interested parties. Evaluation results are available to the public, while any protected data remains confidential.


Customs may stop and check food consignments crossing the German border. In the event of food law violations, customs inform the competent authorities in the federal states. In order to increase the safety of certain foodstuffs, where the national or EU food control authorities have prior information that the food in question may contain undesirable substances or contaminants, it is mandatory for food consignments to be presented at the customs office. For such products, the importer has to provide test results when importing the products, proving that they are in perfect condition. Foodstuffs which do not meet the legal requirements must either be destroyed or re-exported. The customs authorities are subordinate to the Federal Ministry of Finance.

The European Commission’s Health and Food Safety Directorate General

The Health and Food Safety Directorate General (DG) is part of the European Commission and responsible for the fields of public health and food safety. The DG 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 food safety. It is in charge of risk management in the food sector at EU level.

The European Food and Veterinary Office

The Ireland-based Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) is a directorate of DG Health and Food Safety of the European Commission and examines implementation of and compliance with Community legislation in the Member States, for instance by sending inspection teams. The BVL is the national coordination office for these inspections and assists in the preparation, performance and follow-up work for these inspections in close cooperation with the competent authorities in the federal states.

European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advises the European Commission in all aspects of food and feed safety, animal health, plant protection and nutrition, and draws up scientific reports on relevant issues. The authority delivers scientific analyses and information which guide organisations, authorities and political decision makers in developing Community law. The EFSA is headquartered in Parma, Italy.

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