The View from Europe: MEPs this week called for a review of food production chains, step up checks and revise labelling legislation following recent food fraud cases, including the sale of horsemeat as beef.

The European Parliament voiced its concern at the growth in food fraud, which it says exploits structural weaknesses in the production chain.

MEPs argue that food fraud risks are aggravated by the complexity and cross-frontier nature of this chain, coupled with the essentially national nature of inspections, penalties and enforcement measures.

“The first problem is a lack of comparable data, which means that it is difficult to get an exact picture of the problem…However, we know that we are talking about billions of euros here. Organised crime is clearly getting interested in this,” noted Dutch MEP Esther De Lange, who led the calls.

“Unlike the US, the EU still has no common definition of ‘food fraud’, which has long been a blind spot of European institutions. Food fraud cases are the rotten apples that spoil matters for all those farmers, intermediaries and individuals who do respect the rules and destroy consumer confidence in food and food information,” she added.

This week the report was approved by 659 votes to 24, with eight abstentions.

The report calls for an EU-wide harmonised definition of food fraud and calls on the European Commission to strengthen the EU Food and Veterinary Office, which carries out inspections.

It also calls for the establishment of a European network to combat food fraud and proposes that DNA tests should be used more widely, to eliminate any species fraud.

MEPs have also called for more thorough inspections of frozen foodstuffs and for a draft law to make labelling mandatory for meat and fish. Traceability would be improved by making it mandatory to state the country of origin, they observe, including for all meat-based processed products.

MEPs are also considering that EU member states should fix food fraud penalties of at least twice the estimated economic gain sought by the fraudster and criminal law penalties for cases in which fraud endangers public health.

Recent food fraud cases across Europe include horsemeat sold as beef, road salt sold as food salt, the use of alcohol containing methanol in spirits, dioxin-contaminated fats discovered in animal feed, labels that state the wrong species of fish and the mislabelling of seafood, MEPs note.

Speaking to AgriLand, Irish MEP Sean Kelly said Ireland is leading the way in food safety and this was stressed in Europe during the food fraud debate. “With regards to the horsemeat scandal, it wasn’t in the Irish produce as most of it was imported. The Irish food monitoring system spotted the abuse. We put actions across Europe to rectify to make sure the consumer has full confidence in what they are actually eating and that the food is exactly what it is on the label. The labelling legislation and country of origin is important. It needs to be accurate, simple and straightforward yet comprehensive for consumers.”

In terms of proposed mandatory food checks, the MEP noted: “There is no point have vigilance in one country and not the other. There needs to be more checks, they need to be more frequent and more open. Spot checks will also become key.”

The next step in the process is to get overall agreement from the European Commission. The timescale on this is estimated to be up to six to nine months.