The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is working with the London Produce Show and Conference to explain how important regulation on imported fresh produce is discussed, amended and enforced at UK borders. In addition, the FSA is committed to working with stakeholders across the supply chain to develop and explain policy. Here, Alex Schofield, senior imports policy advisor at the Regulatory and Legal Strategy Directorate of the FSA, guides Produce Business UK readers through the process of how fresh produce is regulated
What are the roles and responsibilities?
Alex Schofield (AS): It’s the responsibility of food business operators to ensure that the fresh produce sold and eaten in the UK and the European Union (EU) is safe to eat. The Food Standards Agency’s role is to protect consumers’ interests in relation to food.
As such, the FSA is responsible for assuring that food businesses place food on the market that is safe to eat. Therefore, industry and government must work together to deliver the best system that ensures consumers can (and do) have a high level of confidence in the safety of the produce they purchase in the UK.
Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 lays down the general principles and requirements of food law, specifically Article 14 of the legislation, which states that:
- Food shall not be placed on the market if it is unsafe.
- Food shall be deemed to be unsafe if it is considered to be: a) injurious to health; or b) unfit for human consumption.
Established food businesses importing fresh produce for sale into the UK or the EU carry out checks to ensure the businesses they buy from are exporting produce in line with the safety requirements of the exporting country’s regulations. Non-EU countries have different levels of food safety systems in place and the EU has one of the highest food safety standards in the world.
Food does not always travel well and regardless of the steps put in place to ensure the quality and safety of the produce it can arrive in a less than satisfactory condition and may pose a risk to public health. Regulation must be proportionate and risk-based. So how do we deal with this without imposing unnecessary burdens on well-run, compliant food businesses? There is legislation in place to help us.
The FSA plays a strong and active part in drafting and agreeing Europe-wide legislation in relation to food.
One such piece of European legislation is Regulation (EC) No 669/2009, which came into force on January 25, 2010. This Regulation lays down rules concerning the level of official controls to be carried out on imports of certain foods identified as posing an increased risk to public health. Foods listed under this legislation (food comprising or containing meat is subject to different legislation) are subject to an increased frequency of official controls at the border before they can be released and placed on the market.
What are official controls?
AS: Official controls are checks undertaken at designated points of entry into the EU in order to satisfy that the food being imported is safe. Official controls for products identified as high risk under Regulation (EC) No 669/2009 include mandatory documentary checks and a proportion of identity and physical checks dependant on the risk posed by the food.
Physical checks include sampling for known hazards associated with the food to be imported and the relevant country of origin; for instance:
Microbiological – Salmonella in sesame seeds from India
Pesticide Residues – Chlorpyrifos in yardlong beans from Ghana
Chemical contamination – sulphites in apricots from Turkey
Mycotoxins – aflatoxins in pistachios from the US
Identity checks test whether the description on the paperwork matches the contents in the consignment. A documentary check is undertaken to verify that the consignment conforms to EU import requirements. There is more information about this on our website.
Which other import rules cover foods identified as high risk?
AS: Foods identified as high risk must enter the UK (or other European port) through an approved Designated Point of Entry (DPE). There are 21 DPEs (as at April 2016) in the UK. Not all DPEs are authorised to accept all high-risk foods. Businesses should ensure a DPE accepts the commodity being imported otherwise the consignment will be identified as non-compliant. Non-compliant consignments of food face destruction, re-exportation outside of Europe or in some cases the food may be reprocessed for a non-food purpose. In all cases the costs are borne by the importing food business.
Additionally, foods listed under Regulation (EC) No 669/2009 must be notified to the DPE at least one working day prior to its arrival. The FSA accepts that this can be difficult for businesses importing fresh produce via air freight. However, pre-notification now takes place electronically and early pre-notification enables DPEs to allocate appropriate official control resources in order to minimise delays to consignments at the border.
When do the rules apply?
AS: The regulation only applies to imports of certain high-risk food from certain non-EU countries. The list of high-risk foods is reviewed and revised at quarterly meetings based on evidence provided by all EU Member States. The FSA represents the UK at these meetings.
If a consignment of high-risk food is imported through a European port in another Member State, provided the official controls undertaken at that port confirm the food is compliant, the consignment is then considered safe and may be placed on the market for free circulation anywhere within the EU (including the UK).
How do products come to be listed?
AS: Only foods with established public health concerns are listed. The Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is a Europe-wide network to report food incidents and to share non-compliant sampling results between Member States. It is a system that helps Member States coordinate food incidents and share information.
The FSA has developed and implemented a national Early Warning System (EWS) using the RASFF data. The system identifies potential and emerging risks related to imported fresh produce and informs enforcement bodies, industry trade bodies and individual stakeholders. If you wish to receive these monthly EWS updates, please contact [email protected] and the team will be happy to speak with you. The EWS helps the UK to be proactive before new products are listed or discussed.
Foods are de-listed from the regulation if evidence confirms that compliance has improved and the trends no longer indicate a significant public health risk. To a casual observer this may appear to take a long time. However, in order to protect public health, sufficient data must be collected to establish that the trend has reversed over an appropriate length of time to remove any significant risk correlated with this food previously.
What does this mean for businesses and importers in practice?
AS: The time it takes a consignment to clear a port will depend on whether it’s selected for an identity and a physical check. The frequency of these checks depends on the level of risk related to this specific food and its country of origin. This is set out in the legislation.
The speed of clearance depends on various factors. Generally, it can take longer to test for the presence of salmonella than for the presence of pesticide residues, for example. This is because salmonella must be cultivated in the laboratory over several days compared to pesticides, which can be screened more quickly. The performance of ports varies by the range of products received.
How can the produce industry find out more?
AS: Further information on the import requirements of high risk foods, including links to the latest amendment to Regulation (EC) 669/2009 (Annex I to the latest amendment of Regulation (EC) 669/2009 lists the commodities currently subject to additional controls) can be found on the FSA website here.
The latest information on food and feed safety alerts can be found on the EU RASFF homepage here.
For any other questions, contact Alex Schofield at [email protected]