• Food Safety, GMO’s and traditional products within Serbia’s EU accession negotiations

    Food safety is certainly one of the most significant policies in the European Union, and most definitely one of the most important ones when it comes to consumer protection.

    Good knowledge of the legislation covering this policy area is of crucial importance for Serbia, primarily for the development of its economy and agriculture, but as well for Serbia’s exports to the European Single Market.

    Legislation in this area is very wide and  is described by the slogan ‘ From farm to fork ‘, which aims to explain that the European Union’s legislation and policies regulate the whole chain of production, distribution, sales and even food consumption. This integrated approach to food safety aims to provide a high level of food safety, animal health, animal welfare and plant health within the EU, as well as to contribute to the effective functioning of the Single Market.

    The implementation of this approach revolves around the guarantee of effective monitoring system for the assessment of conformity with EU standards in the sectors of food safety and quality, animal health, animal welfare, animal nutrition and plant health within the EU, but as well as in relation to goods that third countries export to the EU market. Risk management in this area is in the hands of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

    The EU strategy for food safety can be divided into three main parts:

    • Legislation related to food safety and animal feed;
    • Research-based advice on which to base decisions;
    • Control and monitoring.

    Also, in this policy area we have some of the best examples of horizontal measures, like for example, the Directive on the labelling of products 2000/13, which is considered to be ‘ universal’ and the set of regulations related to hygiene (i.e. Hygiene package), which replaced and supplemented the Hygiene Directive 93/43/EEC. However, until the end of the twentieth century, the European Union did not have a widely developed legislation in this area. Only after the case of mad cow disease in 1996. in the UK (BSE – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), and dioxin crisis in 1999. in Belgium (PCB – Polychlorinated Biphenyls) did the European Commission realized that there are a number of omissions in the work of EU bodies and  an absence of adequate legal framework in this area. All measures till that point, expressed more preference for industry and commerce then they did for consumer protection and public health. However, after these cases the Commission started working on policy reform in this area, which in 2000. resulted in the White Paper on Food Safety, on which bases today’s food safety system operates. It is in fact due to the correct functioning of the new system of monitoring and control that the most recent problem of ‘horse meat’ trafficking was discovered and successfully resolved.

    EU policies in this area are based on the following principles, which must be respected by all actors in the production and distribution system in order to guarantee protection for consumers, but also for producers who perform their duties correctly:

    1. Strategic and integrated approach within the whole food chain;
    2. Clearly defined roles of all actors in the supply chain (from producers of animal feed, through farmers, to the European institutions, Member States and consumers);
    3. Traceability (that at any time we can get to each of the stages that a product has passed);
    4. Coherent, effective and dynamic policy;
    5. Principle of the risk analysis (which consists of risk assessment for managing risks and risk communication);
    6. Greater role of scientific institutions;
    7. Application of the precautionary principle in risk management.

    Chapter 12 and its legislation, in Serbia, because of the strict laws are often perceived as a potential barrier to the production of traditional products. Of course, Serbia isn’t the first candidate with such doubts and for the EU, this is not a new problem, since it had to face similar ones during the accession processes of its newest member states. The problem lies in the fact that citizens are often confused in regards to some of the basic laws related to food safety, and are naturally worried that there will not be more ‘ćevapčići as once were’ or that they will no longer be able to produce rakija. These examples might be somewhat banal, but many such confusions really exist. The recent case of Croatian ‘cream and cheese’ proves just that. In fact, in Croatia the opinion that the European Union will ban the sale of these products in the domestic markets rapidly spread. The confusion was so great, that some Croatian politicians shaped their campaign against joining the EU on the base of this misconception. Of course, the EU had no intention of introducing such ban, but it merely required an introduction of adequate sanitation and hygiene standards in the sale and production of these dairy products. Simply, for the sale of these products in local markets it imposed the introduction of small refrigerators and more often sanitary controls.

    This example is very important because it is linked to the need of candidate countries to protect their traditional products at the international level, in order to guarantee higher security when selling them. This is an issue that Serbia will have to pay a lot of attention to in the next period, given that on the international level it has a very small number of agro-alimentary products registered with protected geographical denomination. Needless to say, the negotiations with the EU represent an outstanding opportunity for Serbia to register and protect its traditional products. For example, Serbia will no longer be able to register one of its most famous sprits, plum brandy “šljivovica”, because the Czech Republic in 2007 registered a protected geographical origin for their own kind of plum brandy, called ” slivovice”. Given the similarity of the product and the name, Serbia will have to register its brandy under the name “Serbian šljivovica.” The disputes over the name and protection of geographical origin are not rare in EU, therefore Serbian producers should as soon as possible start the registration process for their products, in order to avoid possible conflicts with other countries.

    Also, EU food safety policies regulate as well the production of genetically modified organisms (GMO). The issue of genetically modified foods is still very controversial in Europe, and the EU is often seen as a promoter of such food production, which has negative effects on the confidence of the citizens towards the European institutions. The GM food may be authorized for production and sale in the EU only if it has passed a rigorous safety assessment. Procedures for evaluation and authorization of GM food are laid down in Regulation (EC) No. 1829/2003, as well as Directive 2001/18/EC on the release of GMOs into the environment. Currently in Serbia the regulation of GM products is a very ‘hot’ topic, primarily because it is one of the major issues blocking the conclusion of negotiations with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Specifically, the acceptance of Codex Alimentarius, which among other things also sets the rules for the production and trade of GM products. Member States of the WTO in principle cannot refuse the guidelines of the Codex, otherwise they are subject to severe penalties and huge fines. An example of such a conflict is precisely the one of the European Union, which has banned meat imports from the United States and Canada, of cattle raised with the help of growth hormones. Due to non-compliance with the rules of the WTO, the EU must annually pay $116 million to U.S. and $11 million to Canada. This situation is going on for many years now, without any sign of resolution of the dispute, because groups of consumer protection lobbies in the EU and the Member States do not want to budge on this issue. In the 2009, the EU has lost the dispute at the WTO against US and Canada, and in many sectors it was obliged to speed up the screening and evaluation procedures for GM products. EFSA is responsible EU body for all these scientific assessments relating to GM products and is obligated to make detailed analysis, which sometimes last for a few years. However, EFSA cannot take any final decision, as it is only an advisory body, the formal decision is in the hands of the Commission, Member States and the Parliament. For Serbia, which wants to become part of the WTO, being closer to the European Union and advancing in the negotiation process, can guarantee a significantly higher level of protection when it comes to these products, because alone it would not be able to bear the costs of non-compliance with Codex.

    When it comes to food safety, production and trade of GM products and the protection of traditional products Serbia needs to take important steps in the next period. But in order to properly prepare the reforms in policy-making and legislation in this area, it must include into the process also producer associations and consumer protection organizations. Finally, Serbia will soon get an important new national document on the health and nutritional statements on food, which will introduce more precise rules and align this field with EU standards. These new rules will bring clarification about claims on the benefits of certain foods, as well as about their composition and should guarantee an easier and more secure decision-making for customers.

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