SPECIAL FEATURE: A Look at Italian Food Safety

Raw ham, parmesan, mozzarella, pasta, pizza, lasagna, tiramisu—Italian food such as these are well known and appreciated around the world. In fact, food export in Italy represents one of the few business branches less affected by economic crisis that otherwise strangling the country at the moment; export increased 5.8 percent in 2013.

The Italian food production chain is characterized by the comparatively small size of the enterprises. Italian slaughterhouses, for instance, are roughly one quarter the capacity of those in France, and even smaller than those in the U.S. Small food businesses with fewer than nine employees comprise 90 percent of the 65,000 existing food enterprises in Italy.

In Italy, food safety issues are adjudicated almost exclusively by regulations and directives of the European Union (EU). Regulations directly apply to all member states, whereas directives have to be transformed into national legislation by each of the member states before being considered a requirement, allowing for minor changes in the final text. Therefore, the member states sometimes differ in practical application.

Nationwide, the implementation of food safety rules are in the hands of both the central government’s Ministry of Health and the 20 Italian regions’ legislative/administrative bodies. Although Italy is not a federal state, regions retain major organizational issues, with evident differences between regions in final application of the rules—adding to the complexity of the whole picture.

According to EU regulations 852.853.854.882 (2004), food business operators are responsible for ensuring food safety. The official controls ensuring compliance with the regulations along the food chain are carried out at local level by the health departments, and by their veterinary services on any food of animal origin. Health departments are part of public agencies called “aziende sanitarie,” which administer the national health care system’s services at the local level. It is interesting to note that the veterinary services, employing 6,500 veterinary officers nationwide, are allocated within the health care system under the “umbrella” of the Ministry of Health and not of Agriculture, as in several other countries.

The EU community, including Italy, is a free trade market between all member states. Therefore, food and other goods are only inspected at specially designed checkpoints when they are first introduced into the community, i.e. imported from countries outside the EU. In case of non-compliance, the entry into the community is refused and a “border rejection notification” is issued. Italy is the only exception within the EU that has another authority called UVAC (Veterinary Office for EU Affairs), which administer random controls on food introduced to Italy from other member states through the health departments’ veterinary services. UVAC offices, located in each region, depend directly on the Ministry of Health.

Other authorities (carabinieri NAS, polizia annonaria, guardie forestali, guardia di finanza, etc.) perform hygiene or similar checks. European, national, and regional rules apply, leading to overlaps in legislation and administration. A number of different authorities often inspect establishments for the same purpose without coordinating with one another. This sometimes creates confusion and frustration among food business operators who, not surprisingly, ask for less bureaucracy and more efficiency. Excessive bureaucracy is one of the reasons many food businesses have closed down in recent years, scaring young entrepreneurs and preventing them from creating new ventures.

In addition, the economic crisis has led to crime organizations acquiring food companies in financial troubles. Unfortunately, Italy has become known worldwide for its corrupt business deals, triggering the necessity of reforms.

The three figures at right show the non-conformities that led to the activation of the EU’s RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) in 2013. The top figure shows the number of alerts “by notifying country.” Italy is at the top of this list with 534 alerts activated out of 3,137 in the EU during 2013.

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