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Another attempt to tighten the food inspection system

Every now and then a scandal breaks out involving Polish food products—most recently the use of industrial salts, as well as horsemeat in beef. In such cases, the authorities announce that they will take stern action. This time they plan to focus on inspections.

In May 2013 the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development presented the guidelines for the proposed State Food Safety and Veterinary Inspectorate Act. Under the proposal, all of the inspectorates supervised by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development—the Veterinary Inspectorate, the State Plant Health and Seed Inspection Service, and the Agricultural and Food Quality Inspectorate—would be combined into one inspectorate. The new inspectorate would also assume the task of supervision over the health condition of foods, which is currently performed by the National Sanitary Inspectorate, reporting to the Minister of Health.

The drafters of the proposal correctly point out that some of the competencies of the existing inspectorates overlap. This can lead to disputes between institutions but can also result in gaps in supervision. For example, inspection of foods of animal origin generally lies within the competence of the Veterinary Inspectorate. But when such food reaches the shops, supervision over it passes to the National Sanitary Inspectorate, because it is responsible for retail. The division of roles between specific inspectorates with respect to food of vegetable origin is also unclear. Such foods are subject to various inspectorates at different stages of production and also with respect to various aspects, such as contamination.

Thus it would be better if food products were inspected by one institution from the beginning to the end of the nutritional chain, “from stable to table.” According to the proposal, however, the National Sanitary Inspectorate would remain separate, but the scope of its competencies in the inspection of the health condition of foods would change. The National Sanitary Inspectorate would retain tasks connected with such matters as the inspection of occupational health and safety at workplaces, healthcare facilities and recreational facilities. The structure of the inspectorate would remain unchanged, with county, province and central levels.

According to the authors of the proposal, centralised supervision over foods should first and foremost tighten the supervision system and thus improve food safety and quality. With centralisation, it should be possible to act more quickly in a crisis, because now it is necessary to coordinate the actions of different inspectorates.

Creation of a single inspectorate should also reduce the institutional operating costs, primarily by cutting administrative overhead. Currently some 30% of the staff of the inspectorates are in administration. The savings could be used to hire more inspectors, improving the effectiveness of supervision of the food market.

The existence of one inspectorate could also make life a little easier for businesses because they could deal with all food-related inspection matters at a single location, and they would be subject to oversight by one inspectorate rather than several different ones sometimes interpreting the same regulations differently.

The main goals and guidelines for the proposed State Food Safety and Veterinary Inspectorate Act appear sound. In practice, however, some provisions could prove less beneficial, such as the plan to reduce the number of laboratories. This is supposedly justified by the need for specialisation of some labs to assure that they operate more efficiently—although it is not clear how this would work. But it could be harder on businesses if there is no lab in their county anymore.

At the stage of issuance of guidelines for the act, it is too early to judge whether the new regulations will clearly and exhaustively specify the competencies of the inspectorate and the authority of the inspectors, to eliminate doubts on the part of the institution and the businesses it oversees.

Hopefully, the proposed regulations will enable better communication between the inspectorate and businesses. Better compliance with procedural rules, such as the requirement to provide information on the factual and legal circumstances and for the inspectorate to explain its decisions, particularly at the county level, could improve businesses’ awareness of their own obligations, resulting in fewer incidents requiring intervention by the inspectorate—and better food.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed reform actually takes place, or stalls like previous attempts at consolidation. The existing inspectorates can naturally be expected to resist the changes and defend their current positions. Some conflicts arose at the stage of drafting the guidelines for the act, including conflicts between the ministries responsible for food issues. The Minister of Health refused to provide the drafters information on the number and type of workers employed at the National Sanitary Inspectorate. It is hard to predict what will happen if the Ministry of Health is stripped of jurisdiction over the health condition of foods.

The effects of the proposed centralisation are another unknown at this point. According to the guidelines for the proposal, the only measure of the effectiveness of the new act would be the reduction of administrative staff and the increased number of staff handling substantive matters. Hopefully the changes, if enacted, will not just slim down the administration but also lead to improvements in food quality and consumer safety.

Urszula Rodak-Smolarek, Life Science Practice, Wardyński & Partners