Product quality, consumer protection and combating IUU

by Thomas Jensen

The information provided by labels must be easy to understand, easily visible, clearly legible and indelible and must appear in the official language(s) of the Member State where the product is marketed.

Although only 7% of the world’s population live in the EU the 27 member states imported food and agricultural products worth 155 billion EUR in 2008. The EU is the world’s largest seafood import market. Anyone who wants to develop this big, attractive market for their products has to fulfil a considerable number of requirements, rules and regulations. We look at some of the most important here.

With its 27 member states and a population of about half a billion people the European Union covers a large part of the European continent. The EU is the world’s biggest economic power; its gross domestic product (GDP) is growing constantly and, since the accession of new member states in June 2004, is even higher than that of the USA. The standard of living in Europe also rose further during the last decade and is today one of the highest in the world.

Since the 1980s the EU member states have been working hard to reduce the barriers between their national economies and create a common internal market in which goods, people, capital and services can cross national borders unhindered. This has led to a very strong increase in trade between the EU states. Business between EU member states accounts for two thirds of total EU trade. The most important trading partner outside of the EU is the USA, followed by China.

Although differences still exist between the individual countries, on average the EU population enjoys a high buying power. But EU citizens are discriminating buyers and the demands they place on imported products are high. Expectations are particularly high, for example, with regard to product quality and production methods which should be as sustainable and environmentally compatible as possible. The level of convenience is just as important as food safety, the type of packaging, or the “purity” of the products, avoidance of unnecessary ingredients and additives. Anyone who wants to enjoy lasting success with their products on the European market has to know as exactly as possible what the consumers want, and what preferences, expectations and ideals they have. Some of these aspects are also influenced by national and demographic developments, lifestyles and social structures.

The big obstacle to exporting to Europe, however, is the large number of trade rules and regulations that are agreed on by EU institutions and implemented by all member states. Adherence to these rules is essential even if an exporter otherwise upholds all the necessary standards and is in possession of certificates (e.g. IFS, BRC, BAP), and has implemented HACCP and traceability systems. And there are sometimes also specific requirements for individual products. This means that exporters should always inform themselves very carefully if they are interested in operating on the European market.

Regulations and food standards:

One of the requirements for importing foods into the EU is that they comply with the valid EU regulations and standards. Some of these requirements are laid down in Directive 2000/13/13/EC with which the legal provisions regarding appearance, labelling and advertising of foods are to be harmonized within the member states. According to these requirements food labels should neither deceive nor misinform the buyer regarding the food’s attributes (nature, composition, volume, durability, origin or provenance, method of production or recovery). It is not permitted to ascribe a product with medical effects that it does not have or to claim that it has special properties if all comparable foods have the same properties. The following information has to be declared on the label (with just a few exceptions):

  • Name under which the product is sold
  • List of ingredients
  • Quantity of particular ingredients or ingredient classes
  • Net quantity or weight (of pre-packed foods)
  • Date of minimum durability or in the case of easily perishable foods the ‘use by’ date
  • If necessary, special instructions for storage and usage
  • Name or company and address of the producer, the packer or a vendor based in the EU
  • Foods that have been treated with ionising radiation must be clearly marked as such (“irradiated” or “treated with ionising radiation”). The obligation to label products unambiguously also applies to foods that contain genetically modified ingredients in so far as these are permitted in the EU at all.

Specific requirements for fishery products:

The European marketing standards encourage EU producers to manufacture products of given quality, in conformity with consumers’ expectations. They replace the various national standards and are regulated by the common organisation of the market system. As part of this system fishery products marketed in the EU, along with the general labelling rules for foodstuffs described above, are also subject to both general labelling rules for fishery products specified in the Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 and specific labelling rules for certain fishery products subject to harmonised marketing standards according to the Regulation (EC) No 2406/96.

In accordance with the Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 and Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001 the following information must be also provided on the label or packaging of fishery products:

  • Commercial and scientific name of the species. For this purpose, Member States publish a list of the commercial and scientific names accepted on their territory.
  • Production method (caught at sea or in freshwater, or from aquaculture) indicated by the harmonised terminology,
  • Catch area (indicating FAO fishing area in case the fish is caught at sea or reference to the country of origin in case the fish is caught in freshwater or farmed).

This information which tells consumers about where the fish comes from and how it was caught may be also provided on a commercial document accompanying the goods instead of labels.

Furthermore, certain fishery products are subject to the harmonised marketing standards established by the Regulation (EC) No 2406/96. This requires that lots contain products of the same size and uniform freshness. The freshness and size categories and presentation must be clearly marked on labels affixed to the lot. The standards facilitate setting common prices for each category of products and defining quality levels.

The information provided by labels must be easy to understand, easily visible, clearly legible and indelible and must appear in the official language(s) of the Member State where the product is marketed.

Packaging requirements:

In recent years, changes in consumer preferences, packaging innovations and the emergence of a common EU market have made it necessary for the EU to review its legis
lation with the aim of increasing consumer choice, enhancing competition and harmonizing the law. A new EU directive 2007/45/EC was published on 21 September 2007 removing defined size prescriptions for pre-packaged goods and products with the exception of wine and spirits. The regulation revokes these outdated strict nominal quantity rules for packaged goods at EU level. It requires all member states to remove any of these from their national rules. Under the new rules manufactures will now have the freedom to choose pack size in line with consumer preferences, packaging design and innovation in line with marketing strategy rather than legislation. Exporters will now have greater market flexibility and can benefit from the reduced cost of compliance with nationally imposed laws. This deregulation makes it possible to place goods of any nominal quantities onto the EU market.

Packing and waste management:

In the older EU member states per capita generation of packaging waste is 169 kg per year, in the new member states still only 87 kg per capita but even that is a considerable quantity, given the fact that valuable raw materials such as paper, plastics, glass, and metals have to be used to produce it. Avoidance and reduction of waste are thus absolutely essential. The original packaging directive 94/62/EC was amended in December 2001 and fixed higher goals for material utilisation which have had to be met since 31 December 2008. This is to lead to an environmental benefit of around EUR150-200m.

Materials in contact with food stuffs:

Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004 dictates which materials foods are allowed to come into contact with. Its aim is to avoid any contacts that could lead to substances from particular materials being passed on the food, changing their composition, and then, when eaten, damaging consumer health. The directive lists material groups ranging from adhesives, ceramics, cork and glass to plastics, rubbers und wood.


Food additives regulation:

Food additives are substances that are added to foods to give them particular properties (e.g. colouring agents, preservatives, gelling and thickening agents, antioxidants, emulsifiers, stabilizers). Directive 89/107/EEC harmonized the regulations on additives that are permitted for use in foods in the member states (see All additives are to be named on the product label, either by categories (e.g. colorant or preservative) or with the corresponding E-number.

EU buyers such as retail chains and supermarkets may require private certification of their suppliers. A series of certification schemes exist in the aquaculture sector, including, NaturLand and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Pesticides and contaminants:

Pesticide residues in food are regulated by Regulation (EC) No 396/2005. The legislation covers the setting, monitoring and control of pesticide residues in products of plant and animal origin that may arise from their use in plant protection. The maximum levels set are those consistent with good agricultural practice in member states and third countries. The levels are set after an evaluation of any risks to consumers of different age groups and they are only set if they are considered safe. The regulation aims at a high level of protection of human health and the environment. Annexes specify the maximum residue levels and the products to which they apply. The Commission Decision 2005/34/EC sets harmonized standards for the testing of certain residues in products of animal origin imported from third countries by using minimum required performance limits (MRPLs) as action limits.


Tariffs are levied on a lot of products that are imported into the EU. The level is set by the EU authorities and then applies within the whole EU region, irrespective of the member state in which the product crosses the EU external border. Not only the product itself but also certain ingredients are subject to tariffs (“compound tariffs“), for example certain milk products or sugar types. Countries that are economically less developed and want to supply to the EU can in certain circumstances enjoy reduced tariff rates or even be exempt. With this measure the EU wants to make it easier for poorer countries to gain access to the EU market and thereby promote their economic growth. The EU establishes autonomous tariff quotas for certain fish and fish products, for which domestic production is in deficit, at a reduced tariff rate (typically 0%, 4% or 6%). This system helps to increase the supply of the raw materials for the needs of the EU processing sector.

The online customs tariff database, TARIC, is a multilingual database which integrates all measures relating to trade. These are third country duty rates, tariff quotas and preferences, suspensions of duties, anti-dumping measures etc. It does not contain information relating to national levies, such as VAT and excise rates.


The central goal of the EU legislation on food safety is to ensure a high level of protection of human health and consumers’ interests in relation to food. This integrated “farm to fork” approach is now considered a general principle for EU food safety policy. Food law, both at national and at EU level, establishes the rights of consumers to safe food and to accurate and honest information. Among other official control measures to ensure compliance with EU provisions for foodstuffs imported fishery products to the EU must also be accompanied by a health certificate issued by the recognised competent authority of the respective country. This process is called an official health certification.

The manufacturer’s general procedure to monitor food safety of products and processes must include procedures based on HACCP principles. In parallel, Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 establishes general provisions for traceability applicable from 1 January 2005. Importers are similarly affected as they are required to identify and register from whom the product was exported in the country of origin, to fulfil the requirements for traceability.

Besides these legal requirements demanded by the EU, importers might also be required to have certain additional certificates. These may concern the geographical origin of the product, confirm its particular quality, or certify its conformity with valid standards.

A peculiarity in the EU region concerning the registration of trademarks is the “community trade mark”. In accordance with regulations No 40/94 and No 2868/95 trade marks for goods and services can be registered as uniform community trade marks for the whole EU region.

EU buyers (retail chains, supermarkets) may require private certification of their suppliers, including in third countries, to ensure that the products they import to the EU are safe and of the required quality.Typically these are private voluntary standards for products and/or processes set by private firms. MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and FOS (
Friends of the Sea) are the most popular environmental certification schemes, while a series of certification schemes exist in the aquaculture sector, such as NaturLand, and ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council).

Within the overall strategy for combating illegal unreported and unregulated fisheries (IUU) fishing catch certificates have also been demanded from all exporters who supply to the EU (Regulation (EC) 1005/2008) since 1 January 2010. These certificates must state clearly that the products do not come from IUU fishery. The certificates are issued by the governments of the export countries. Landing or transhipment operations by third country fishing vessels can only be done in designated ports.

The aim of this measure is to ensure that only products that come from properly inspected fishery operations of the flagged state or the exporting state concerned can enter the EU market. It ensures that all fish on sale in the EU has been caught legally by vessels with the appropriate fishing permits and quotas. In addition there is stronger monitoring of fishing activities at sea, and IUU and infringements against valid fishery law are now more strictly punished than before:

Both IUU fishing vessels and the states that tolerate illegal fishery are named on a European black list.

If industry participants from the EU carry out illegal fishing anywhere in the world – irrespective of the flag under which the vessel is operating – they are threatened with heavy fines based proportionally on the economic value of the catches in order to rule out possible profits.

The package of measures that is intended to put a stop to IUU fishery is backed worldwide by a broad consensus and this is particularly visible in decisions and rulings of the FAO, the UN General Assembly and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development OECD. Together with other measures this is a first step towards an integrated marine policy within the EU for sustainable utilization of the oceans.


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