On 6 May 2013, the European Commission (EC) proposed a “landmark package” that would update the rules governing the agri-food sector in the EU. This is the second-largest economic sector in the EU, worth some EUR750 billion a year, according to the EC. While not specifically responding to the recent horse meat scandal in the EU, some of the lessons learned from that event have been taken on board.

The reform would cut almost 70 pieces of current legislation down to five and will also reduce the red-tape covering processes and procedures for farmers, breeders and food business operators (including producers, processors and distributors). Summarising the proposal, the EC said that it would provide “smarter rules for safer food” in the EU.

The main elements of the proposal can be divided into four sections, dealing with official controls, animal health, plant health and plant reproductive material.

In relation to official controls, the new rules are intended to provide for a more risk-based approach aimed at allowing competent authorities to focus their resources on their most significant concerns. There would be significant and probably controversial changes to the fees system. Mandatory fees would be extended to most official controls and member states would be expected to recover the full cost of controls. In addition, member states would be asked to fully integrate anti-fraud checks into their national control plans and to ensure that financial penalties in these cases are set at “truly dissuasive amounts”.

The package would introduce a single piece of legislation to regulate animal health in the EU, based on the principle that “prevention is better than cure”. Amongst other things, a system of categorisation/prioritisation of diseases that require intervention at EU level would be introduced. Overall, the package is also intended to enable a more risk-based approach and appropriate use of resources in the animal health area.

The plant health regime would be “upgraded” with more focus placed on high-risk trade coming from third countries and increased traceability of planting material on the EU internal market. The legislation would also introduce better surveillance and early eradication of outbreaks of new pest species, as well as financial compensation for growers hit by such pests.

Finally, in relation to plant reproductive material (which includes seeds), the idea is to provide more simplified and flexible rules for the marketing of seeds and other plant reproductive material. This should, the EC says, produce a broader choice for users, including new improved and tested varieties and heterogeneous material.

There is still an opportunity to influence this legislation, as it will now be considered by the European Parliament (which is nearing the end of its current term) and the European Council. The EC estimates that, assuming it is adopted, it will enter into force in 2016.