With public finances across Europe squeezed, Member States (MSs) are looking to transfer the costs of regulation onto the shoulders of businesses. However, food firms argue that, given the wider public benefit of hygiene inspections, those costs should be met from central funds and taxation as in other areas of society.
“The UK is fortunate that it has high food safety standards but this requires commitment in time, effort and resources,” said the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health’s principal food policy officer Jenny Morris.
“We also believe that good business welcomes regulator input through risk-based checks on safety systems. However, business rightly wants recognition of its work to maintain food safety.
“So, if and when charging is introduced, it should be based on risk and we would support a system linked to legislative non-compliance, ie a ‘fee for fault’ system. We believe also that the specific details should be determined by each MS, based on an agreed EU-wide framework of principles.”
The final decision on charging across the EU is not expected until the end of 2015 and any changes are unlikely to apply before 2017/2018 at the earliest.
“The Provision Trade Federation [PTF] remains concerned that the text [of the latest draft legislation] is vague and could lead to excessive charging for official controls, which would be particularly burdensome for small businesses,” said Terry Jones, PTF director general.
The scope of mandatory charges is understood to have been watered down from previous versions and is thought to be more of a compromise. It is also said to be closer to the UK position that individual MSs are best placed to determine if and where any fees should apply.
“On the aspect of charging, the Food and Drink Federation [FDF] agrees with the Food Standards Agency’s [FSA’s] position on the financing of official controls,” said Barbara Gallani, FDF director of regulation, science & health.
“It is the responsibility of the Competent Authority [eg, FSA] to control food safety and, in the FDF’s view, this should be financed by the public sector rather than the private sector. This guarantees the independence of the official controls and also creates an incentive for Competent Authorities to further enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of their control systems.
“The FDF is concerned that the introduction of charges could have a detrimental impact on the way food business operators and enforcement officers currently work together.”
There are also concerns that the additional costs could prove particularly damaging to smaller food businesses, although some micro-businesses could be exempted from charges. It is argued they would be disproportionately hit, bringing their viability into question.
However, small food businesses often present higher food safety risks and require more frequent inspections for non-compliance.
“One of our main concerns is that an inspection of a consignment being imported has a clear start and finish. A hygiene inspection of a village shop does not,” said Bob Salmon, founder of Food Solutions, which advises small firms about regulation. “Is an inspector going to charge for walking in and looking round a shop and possibly giving advice?”
Salmon estimates costs could be as high as £500 a visit.