In May last year, the EC adopted a proposal for a draft regulation EC 882/2004 which aims to strengthen the enforcement of health and safety standards across the “agri-food chain”. Part of these proposals involves making those currently inspected by EHOs and other government bodies pay for the cost of these inspections.
Following publication of the proposed Regulation in May 2013 a joint working group here comprising the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine, the Department of Health and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland was established to formulate the Irish position for the Council working group meetings. The three bodies invited comments in respect of the proposed Regulation and amendments to be submitted to the FSAI.
The largest number of comments related to the proposals for inspection fees and submissions included specific comments on fees relating to “full cost recovery”, exemptions for ‘micro enterprises’ (SMEs) and fee reduction for consistently compliant operators as well as consultation on the fee calculation method.
According to a Post Consultation Information Note last March, most Member States came out against these costs in their current form being imposed on ‘microbusinesses’ and an amendment to the proposal was only recently agreed at a Plenary Session of the European Parliament to the effect that Member States would have the flexibility to decide whether or not to exclude microbusinesses from fees/contributions to the cost of inspections. This would affect those businesses with turnovers under €2 million or those with less than 10 employees.
Ireland was among those Member States that wanted the flexibility to allow them decide themselves from which operators they should collect fees and the level at which those fees should be set.
“This is part of ongoing negotiations between Member States, the EC and the European Parliament to finalise this proposal,” stated a spokesman for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which conducts inspections on behalf of the Health & Safety Executive through Environmental Health Officers. At present these inspections are funded by the Department of Health through the HSE.
However, it’s understood that if SMEs are excluded from charges this would conflict with the EC’s aim of collecting fees to recover the costs incurred in relation to official controls.
Many Member States have further pointed out that any fees collected must be given in to the central exchequer and there’s no guarantee that they will be released exclusively to fund the carrying out of official controls.
The format and scope for any level of SME exemptions at national level remains to be seen as this is still under discussion.
Naturally, the hospitality sector would be horrified by the prospect of pubs, hotels and restaurants being levied for EHO inspections by our own Government.
“We’ve seen this proposal,” VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben told Drinks Industry Ireland, “This would add insult to injury. In actual fact in some cases there may need to be an investigation to see how these resources are currently being used”.
He added, “This would be a blank cheque for agencies to write their own travelling and call-out allowances.”
Tim Fenn, Chief Executive of the Irish Hotels Federation, commented, “The Irish Hotels Federation believes that small businesses in Ireland should not be burdened with additional cost particularly at a time when employment growth is critical to our economic recovery”.
And the Restaurants Association of Ireland Chief Executive Adrian Cummins explained, “As Chair of the European Hotels and Restaurants Association Food Committee, I’ve lobbied hard to stop this nonsense measure and we’re pleased to announce that we had a victory in stopping Brussels from making it mandatory across Europe that SMEs will have to pay EHO fees.
“The battle is now with our Department of Health and we’ll fight hard to help small restaurants and pubs that do food from this ludicrous idea.”
However a spokesperson for the Department of Health stated to Drinks Industry Ireland that Ireland’s position (as set out in its response last April to a questionnaire on the financing of official controls put to Member States under the Greek Presidency) was that it’s in favour of maintaining the current financing of official controls regime as set out in the existing EC Regulation 882/2004 and is not in favour of mandatory fees being introduced in respect of all official controls.
“This matter is up for further discussion at an EU Council meeting on 19th June when we will re-iterate our position,” confirmed the DofH spokesperson.