Frequently asked questions: EU-Food-Policy

  • Transparency and food safety
Yaroslav Danylchenko_canva.com

The EU has different types of legislation that relate to food. Some rules apply directly to all Member States, without having to be transposed into national laws. These rules are called regulations. The General Food Law Regulation (178/2002) is an example. 

The General Food Law Regulation forms the basis for food and feed policy in all member states. The law has established principles, conditions and procedures regarding food safety and feed production and distribution.   

Although the General Food Law Regulation has represented a positive step forward, we cannot yet call the law a success. There are too many loopholes that food fraudsters gratefully exploit, and consumers are still too exposed to the dangers of unsafe food. Measures that can be taken based on the law are more reactive than preventative. Thus, large-scale honey and horsemeat fraud occurred and is still occurring. Consumers are often inadequately informed about food scandals to protect the interest of the industry.  

foodwatch already published a report on the shortcomings of the General Food Law Regulation back in 2018. foodwatch called for the enforcement of traceability of food products clear and demanded that the public should be informed timely about food risks without withholding information. In addition, retailers must also test products themselves. Supermarkets currently bear no responsibility if something is wrong with food in their shops.   

When the General Food Law Regulation was drafted, provision was immediately made for the creation of an organisation to provide scientific advice to EU decision-makers and advice on how to communicateon food risks in the EU. When that European food law came into force, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was subsequently established.   

EFSA does not make policy or enforce it. EFSA does however give advice on all kinds of food-related issues, such as food safety, animal welfare, pesticides and additives. To this end, it collects scientific data to base its opinions on.  

The European institutions (Commission, Parliament and Council) decide on the  food regulation, following scientific advice from bodies such as EFSA , but it is mainly the national states that have their own enforcement bodies to ensure food safety. So each Member State has its own organisation; this creates a patchwork of enforcement agencies. Also, EU policy is interpreted slightly different by each member state.   

foodwatch therefore demands clearer EU rules to ensure uniform enforcement by all Member States. This means that enforcement needs to be well resourced and have  firm sanctions not only for food fraudsters, but also for food cheats.   

Another important European regulation for our food policy is the Food Information to Consumers Regulation (1169/2011). This regulation should protect consumers from misleading food products and ensure that they are properly informed by food labels. For example, we have the right to know the origin and composition of our food and all EU countries should provide this information in a uniform manner. The Food Information to Consumers Regulation has also been on the EU's planning to be reformed for years, and a promised update was part of the Farm to Fork agenda proposed in 2020. The legisltaive proposal, however, did not materialise. foodwatch continues to call for an update to this regulation to propose a harmonised and  mandatory  front-of-pack information and counter nutritional and health claims that make no sense whatsoever. This should make misleading more difficult, and healthier consumer choices easier, and uniform enforcement by member states simpler.  

No. An example of another type of European legal rule is the directive. The so-called Breakfast Directives adopted by the European Parliament in 2024 is such a directive. Directives must be adhered to by all Member States, but states are allowed to decide for themselves how to achieve the set objectives. The Breakfast Directives replace rules that were sometimes as old as 20 years on labelling: for example, the origin of honey must be clearer, the amount of fruit in jams increased and there must be more transparency about sugar on fruit juice labels. The Breakfast Directives were finally signed off by the EU policy making process in March 2024 but the result is not great. Fruit juice may not be able to have the front of pack nutrition claim of ‘no added sugars’, but it can proclaim it contains ‘only naturally occurring sugars’ – another misleading claim for consumers.  

While the EU General Food Law establishes general principles relating to guaranteeing food safety and quality checks across Europe, the approval process for specific substances involved in food production depends on their uses and the sectors they fall under. Different types of substances (e.g. food additives, pesticides) follow different regulations (e.g. the EU additives regulation, the EU pesticides regulation). However, the steps of approval are very similar and usually involve a long procedure, whereby food companies have to request approvals for the substances they want to put onto the market and an EU authorisation has to be delivered. EFSA is in charge of providing a scientific assessment of the request and transmitting it to the European Commission. The Commission then submits an opinion and discusses it with member states who need to approve the request.  

The precautionary principle is central to this. The precautionary principle is mentioned in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It is one of the core values of European laws and regulations. Substances may only be authorised if they are proven safe for human, animal and plant health. This applies to pesticides, but also to foodstuffs such as additives. Whereas a preventive approach is paramount here,  in practice this precautionary principle is by no means always adhered to by the EU. For instance, there is a lot of scientific research on the intrinsic dangers of Glyphosate and the risks of its use for human health and the environment glyphosate use. Nonetheless, the European Commission allowed the use of glyphosate again for 10 years in 2023. Another problem: the industry is allowed to submit applications for approval based on its own (selected) research, which means that independent scientific considerations with different conclusions can often be overturned.  

When you say food, you say agriculture and that is where the European Union makes its mark. In 1962, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) was created to support farmers and ensure food security. This policy is set out in an extensive legal framework and regulates, among other things, agricultural subsidies for member states. The current CAP runs from 2023-2027 and so discussions on revisions for CAP post 2027 will be top of the agenda of the new Parliament and Commission.   

Real CAP reform is badly needed. We have been campaigning for years for pesticide-free agriculture by 2035. This is possible, but only by changing the way we farm. And this also requires a different agricultural policy.  

At the last meeting of the MEPs before the next election, they voted to roll back on environmental provisions in the current CAP. This was done on the basis of a proposal from the Commission which was fast tracked and did not go through an impact assessment or sufficient parliamentary scrutiny. It was a dark day for democracy and even more reason why it is important that elected MEPs carry out their mandated scrutiny role correctly. 

Our global food system is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. To make the EU food system more sustainable, the European Commission presented the Green Deal in 2019 and the resulting Farm to Fork strategy in 2020. This strategy is not a regulation but should be developed into national and European laws and regulations. The Farm to Fork strategy contains several targets to achieve a more sustainable and healthy food system in the EU by 2030, such as a 50% reduction in pesticides, a 20% reduction in fertilizer use and the organic share in agriculture should increase up to 25%.   

However, with the withdrawal by the European Commission of the Sustainable Use Regulation, a law that was supposed to significantly reduce pesticide use, the Green Deal has received quite a blow. This law had already been voted down by the European Parliament in November but is now not even being reintroduced by the Commission. The goals of the Green Deal set the tone of the last mandate,  yet Commission President Von der Leyen and European Green Deal Commissioner Wobke Hoekstra, with help from MEPs from the political right, have failed to deliver them.