Food Fraud Network exchanges boosted by IT system

AAC system hopes to achieve Member State cooperation

The European Commission has launched an IT system which will be used to exchange information on cross-border violations of EU food chain rules such as food fraud.

The Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) system will allow Member States to exchange information including the case description (e.g. alleged non-compliance), product details, the sampling, product traceability and measures taken.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal of 2013 the Commission set up the European Food Fraud Network (FFN) to handle requests for cross-border cooperation.

FFN published a 2014 activity report earlier this year which found meat products were the category of foodstuffs for the majority of exchanges.

However, statistical conclusions cannot be drawn given that Member States may also exchange information in other ways. 

Work in practice

Access to the first version is reserved to the EU Food Fraud Network but will be made available to the general AAC system liaison bodies to exchange on non-compliances related to EU Food Law which have a cross-border dimension in the future.

“In a typical case, a competent authority in one Member State sends a request for assistance to another Member State, which in turn provides a feedback to this initial request. If needed, a follow up to this feedback may occur,” a spokesman from the European Commission told FoodQualityNews.

“The requested competent authority may need, for example, to carry out an inspection at the premises of a food business operator that may have exported fraudulent products to the requesting competent authority,” he said.

“The requested competent authority then notifies the requesting competent authority of the results of such inspection.

“The result of this inspection may for instance lead the requested Member State to, if need be, suspend operations for the food business operator in question, thus ending the fraudulent practice.

“In addition, the AAC system enables the collection of information which is needed (in accordance with applicable national rules) to further refer a case to investigation/ prosecution.”

To avoid unnecessary duplications in cases relevant for the AAC system, the information in RASFF and TRACES will be made available so that the Member State doing the notifying to RASFF and TRACES is not required to upload the same content onto the AAC system.

Development timeline

When asked why the tool had taken so long to develop the spokesman said it had to create a tool differing from the RASFF and legal issues underpinning its functioning.

“During the horsemeat incident in 2013, the RASFF was used for disseminating relevant information and providing feedback relative to controls that had been carried out,” he said.

“This experience showed that the RASFF model of communication could be used as a starting point to build a dedicated system for administrative assistance and cooperation, albeit with the appropriate adjustments required by the specificities of administrative assistance and cooperation exchanges.

“Indeed, these differ from the RASFF communication model primarily because they take place on a bilateral basis and because, as a rule, notifications in the form of requests should be followed by a response from the requested competent authority.

“The [legal measure] (Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2015/1918) also addresses key issues such as matters of processing of personal data and security and was discussed extensively with the Member States. The development of the software and the adoption of the legal basis took a little more than 18 months.”

The Commission said the absence of a structured IT tool was seen by several Member States as a factor preventing the use of administrative assistance and maximum cooperation, as information was previously exchanged in a non-harmonised way and through different channels.

As far as the linguistic issue is concerned, the interface of the AAC system will be available in all EU languages in the first quarter of 2016 to minimise the language barrier.

The evolution of the number of cases dealt with through the AAC system will be a good marker to see if the system is making a difference or not, said the spokesman.

“The outcome of cases exchanged via the AAC system can help to confirm or not the fraudulent nature of a violation. Figures on cases and outcomes will be gathered and analysed to guide further work,” he said.

“We consider that an increase over time of the number of cross-border cases tackled by the AAC system will already indicate strengthened capabilities of the EU system as a whole to address / counter cross-border violations as Member States familiarize themselves and cooperate daily.  

“However, definite conclusions related to fraudulent practices in Europe could hardly be drawn on this basis given that cases which do not have a cross-border dimension are not exchanged via the AAC system.” 

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