Commission launches IT tool to boost cooperation on possible fraudulent practices

The European Commission has today launched a dedicated IT tool, on the ground of articles 34-40 Reg. (EC) No 882/2004, known as the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system to facilitate the exchange of administrative information between national authorities working to combat cross-border violations in Europe.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal of 2013, the Commission developed an action plan to strengthen controls of the food supply chain. One of these measures was to set up a pan-European mechanism to ensure the rapid exchange of information between national authorities and the Commission in cases of suspected food fraud cases. As a result, the European Food Fraud Network (FFN) was born and tasked with handling requests for cross-border cooperation. Each Member State has appointed a contact point to handle requests from contact points in the other Member States that form part of the network. This network has been operational since July 2013 and since its creation, the Commission has observed a marked increase in the number of exchanges from 30 in 2013 to 90 so far in 2015, adding up to 180 cases in total since its creation.

Cross border cooperation helps to improve the capability of national authorities to:

  • detect and prevent cross border breaches of EU food chain rules; and if necessary
  • collect the information that is needed to refer a case for further investigation and to ensure appropriate enforcement action

The AAC system will ensure that the Food Fraud Network works even more efficiently and is able to respond more swiftly to information requests.

The Activity Report of the FFN for 2014 reveals that exchanges on suspected frauds mostly relate to mislabelling (for instance with regard to date marking, adding water or ingredients), falsified certification and/or documents and substitution, such as replacement of a higher value species with a lower value species (for example substituting pollock for cod). Importantly, however, statistical conclusions cannot be drawn from these data given that Member States may also exchange information outside of the FFN and that cases which do not have a cross-border dimension, i.e. which occur at purely national level, are not exchanged via the Network.

Next steps and main issues

The system will be used in the first phase by the Food Fraud Network. At a later stage, it will be made available also to the liaison bodies working on cases of Administrative Assistance and Cooperation not related to fraudulent practices.

The details about the AAC systems are provided by Commission Implementing Decision (EU) No 2015/1918, establishing the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system (‘AAC system’) pursuant to Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council on official controls performed to ensure the verification of compliance with feed and food law, animal health and animal welfare rules, published on the Official Journal of the European Union on 22nd October 2015.

Key points for a smooth functioning of the systems will be:

  • coordination with other existing IT systems, namely RASFF and TRACES;
  • confidentiality.

On the first point, the whereas (9) of the Decision is clear:

“In certain cases, information concerning non-compliance with food or feed law is disseminated by and among the competent authorities in the Member States through the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), established in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council , and through the Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES), established by Commission Decision 2004/292/EC. In order to avoid unnecessary duplication, that information should be made available through the AAC system to the liaison bodies designated in accordance with Regulation (EC) No 882/2004, so that the Member State notifying that information to the RASFF or TRACES is not required to upload the same information onto the AAC system for the purposes of administrative assistance and cooperation. Accordingly, the RASFF and TRACES applications should be enabled to provide data to the AAC system in order to streamline the process.”

Regarding data protection and security, art. 10-12 provide a general framework, which is well summarized in the whereas (13) of the Decision. These provisions are necessary to ensure an effective investigative and prosecution activity:

“Where the exchange of information provided for in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004 and in this Decision involves the processing of personal data, a careful assessment should be carried out to ensure that the processing is strictly necessary to achieve the purposes of efficient administrative assistance and cooperation, and that such processing is in accordance with the national provisions implementing Directive 95/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council and with Regulation (EC) No 45/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council.

Where exemptions and restrictions of certain rights of the data subjects and obligations of the data controller laid down by Directive 95/46/EC and Regulation (EC) No 45/2001 are considered in order to safeguard the interests referred to in Article 13(1)(d) and (f) of Directive 95/46/EC and in Article 20(1)(a) and (e) of Regulation (EC) No 45/2001, those exemptions and restrictions may only be adopted if they are necessary and proportionate to the objective pursued.

Restrictions to the rights of data subjects should constitute a necessary measure to prevent interference with the official control tasks of the competent authorities and with the assessment of compliance with food law or feed law.

In particular, rights of the data subjects may be restricted, in accordance with Directive 95/46/EC and Regulation (EC) No 45/2001, during the period in which actions are carried out for the purpose of sighting or discrete surveillance, where granting them would jeopardise or undermine the purpose of official controls or investigations.

In order to guarantee a high level of data protection, it is appropriate to establish a maximum timeframe to ensure that personal data do not remain in the AAC system longer than it is necessary to achieve compliance with the rules laid down in Title IV of Regulation (EC) No 882/2004. In particular, a retention period of 5 years, starting from the closure of the administrative assistance and cooperation procedure, should be established, after which time personal data should be removed from the AAC system. The length of the retention period is necessary to give the possibility to the liaison bodies and the Commission to consult the information over a sufficient period of time after the administrative assistance and cooperation procedure has been closed, in order to ascertain the timely identification of reoccurring, connected or widespread non-compliance with food or feed law.”

 

FVO Report – Sweden official controls over meat traceability and food frauds

The audit to Sweden was carried out from 14 to 24 April 2015. The main objective of the audit was to evaluate the operation of official controls over the traceability of meat (meat of domestic ungulates, poultry, lagomorphs and game meat), minced meat, mechanically separated meat (MSM), meat preparations, meat products (hereafter referred to as meat and products thereof), and composite products containing meat and products thereof and other ingredients.

Particular attention was paid to the traceability, labelling and identification systems of meat and products thereof, and to composite products containing meat and products thereof and traceability of quantities of each ingredient used. The official control procedures require all establishments to be controlled, at least every five years, in all areas of applicable legislation. Risk based controls are split between the different inspections/audits that take place during the five year period. In the current five year official control plan traceability is scheduled to be covered twice.

The CCA is currently implementing actions in relation to traceability following the horse meat scandal and the discovery of certain food fraud in Sweden. These actions aim to increase the awareness of FBOs and officials in charge of controls. They concern the following areas:

  • creation of a food fraud unit;
  • specific training for staff to new control methods (180 inspectors on training);
  • identification of non-registered FBOs;
  • revision of the Swedish food act to re-enforce its efficiency, particularly concerning penal sanctions;
  • joint NFA-Stockholm municipality project to improve traceability controls and avoid overlapping (to be carried out between May and September 2015).

The Swedish CCA has already drawn certain lessons from the recent meat scandals and is undertaking specific actions to increase the efficiency of the control system. Significant work remains to be done.

In all the establishments visited, the food business operators stated that a traceability system was in place. However, the evaluation of these systems revealed a less positive picture concerning traceability in general and quantitative traceability in particular. In one cold store a robust traceability system was already in place. Two establishments were making good progress towards implementing a good system but the others still had significant progress to make. Two establishments had yet to start work on implementing a traceability system.

At the start of the audit, the FVO audit team chose 14 different food (meat based) samples at retail level. The CCA was asked to carry out a quantitative traceability of these samples in co-operation with the FBOs concerned. These exercises were far from successful: out of 14 samples, the CAs and the FBOs concerned could only establish 4 complete chains of traceability supported by the documented evidence. In the other cases significant documents relating to traceability were missing.

The FVO audit team also paid attention to the traceability and the use of additives in meat preparations and meat products. In general the situation was satisfactory but certain misuses were noted in some establishments. Nitrites and phosphates are allowed in “traditional products” which, in the absence of specific national rules/guidance, has the potential to include any pork or beef meat injected with curing solution (including in the initial phase of the maturing process).

The report makes a number of recommendations to the Swedish CA with a view to addressing the deficiencies identified during this audit.