THE EUROPEAN Commission yesterday proposed a new food safety regime for the 15 EU member countries, under which greater responsibility will be thrown on to producers to ensure proper hygiene standards from farm to table.

The new rules will take the form of regulations rather than directives as at present, giving member countries greater freedom to deal with local problems.

Harmonised hygiene rules, "have proved difficult to enforce in traditional food production and in food businesses in remote islands, secluded mountain areas and other geographically isolated regions," said David Byrne, EU Commissioner for health and consumer protection.

He said Member States "are better placed to judge and find appropriate solutions, provided the basic principle of food safety is not compromised.

The focus is on setting objectives while leaving business flexibility in deciding the safety measures to take, rather than prescribing them in great detail."

The new regulations stitch together the basic hygiene provisions of 17 existing directives that provide a patchwork of rules for food in all sectors though with notable gaps at primary production level (i.e. farms).
In future producers will have the primary responsibility for safety through self-checking programmes while a harmonised Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system will become obligatory for all non-primary food operators.

"These types of self-checking programmes are already in place in parts of the food industry, notably in larger food factories, but were not yet required in for example slaughterhouses," said Mr Byrne.

Britain's Food Standards Agency welcomed the Commission proposals, saying they accorded well with the FSA's own key objectives. An FSA spokesman said the concept of "proportionality" under which regulations were applied flexibly and took into account the size of a company was particularly useful.

The trend towards greater simplification of regulations across the entire food chain was also welcome.

The new regulations have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.

The Commission hopes they can be adopted by the end of the year.

By Alan Osborn