Food Safety and Control in Austria
The national legal basis for food safety and control is the Austrian Food Safety and Consumer Protection Act of 2006 which integrates provisions resulting from EU Regulations on food safety, food control and food hygiene.
It assigns responsibilities for enacting EU-legislation to national administrative bodies.
In Austria, the Federal Ministry of Health (www.bmg.gv.at) has the overall responsibility for food safety and food safety legislation. It coordinates the activities of the food inspection authorities of the nine Federal Provinces and of laboratories designated for analyses of official samples.
In pursuance of the annual federal control plan the authorities of 9 Federal Provinces carry out on-site inspections of enterprises and take samples. They are responsible for administrative measures and punitive actions in case of the violation of law.
Import controls for food of non-animal origin are carried out by food inspectors. Imported food of animal origin is controlled by border veterinarians.
Safeguarding the health of plants, animals and humans - the Austrian Agency for health and food safety (AGES)
The Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES = Agentur für Gesundheit und Ernährungssicherheit GmbH, www.ages.at) was established in 2002 by merging 18 federal institutes from the fields of agriculture, food control, veterinary medicine and public health. It bundles federal competencies and expertise in research and control along the food chain from primary production to consumers and encompasses human epidemiology. AGES is in a position to work in an interdisciplinary manner and with an holistic view on plant, animal, and human health. Meeting the highest quality standards, all AGES laboratories are fully certified and accredited.
AGES is a state-owned exempt limited company. The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management and the Minister of Health act as agents of the Republic of Austria in their respective fields of competence.
On legal grounds a Federal Office of Food Safety was established in parallel to AGES as authority of first instance for the execution of laws regarding agricultural means (seed, seedling, plant variety protection; plant protection products; feedstuff, fertiliser), phytosanitary import inspections and marketing standards (export and import inspections).
However, the Federal Office does not act as authority in relation to foodstuff which is in the remit of the Ministry of Health. AGES and the Federal Office are responsible for risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication within its agricultural remit. However, AGES is responsible solely for risk assessment regarding foodstuff and only contributes to risk management and risk communication which is executed by the Ministry of Health.
In 2004, AGES was additionally put in charge of the inspection of drugs and medical devices and an Austrian Federal Office for Safety in Health Care was established.
Food quality and control in Austria
Assurance of the best possible supply of high-quality foodstuffs is an official objective of the Austrian agricultural policy laid down in the Farm Act of 1992.
The Austrian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (www.bmlfuw.gv.at) considers food quality and food safety as integrated components of a sustainable food production model. Emphasis is placed on high-end food quality produced in an integrated and comprehensive approach to the entire food chain.
The Austrian Agri-food model
The Austrian Agri-food model is symbolized by a pyramid which rests on the pillars of food safety, food quality, food diversity, regionality and has sustainability as its overarching principle.
Food safety from farm to fork is indispensable. It is largely harmonized on EU level.
Food quality: Austrian consumers expect high quality beyond the legal minimum standards of safe food. Their expectations include e.g. environmentally friendly production (restricted use or abandonment of pesticides, fertilizers), animal welfare and organic food.
Diversity of food contributes to healthy nutrition by a vast variety of ingredients, to the preservation of rare plant varieties or endangered animal breeds and the preservation of traditional dishes and culinary cuisine.
Regionality fulfils consumer wishes as to the origin of food, process and product quality of regional food and enhances a trustful relationship between producer and consumer.
The pyramid consists of 3 quality levels
The basic first step stands for foodstuffs fulfilling legal requirements as to food safety.
The second step stands for private schemes higher than the legal standard. Private holders of the different schemes define their own criteria including inspection methods.
The third step of the pyramid encompasses national quality schemes on a legal basis (AMA seal of quality) and European quality schemes (PDO, PGI, organic farming). Organic farming is positioned on the top as it is considered to be the most sustainable method of production. Controls on this step are characterized by mandatory self-monitoring and accredited control bodies which ensure compliance with the specification.
Food Quality Schemes
Food quality is defined by the sum of characteristics of food that is requested by consumers. This includes general aspects (external and internal characteristics, expected organoleptic quality, absence of deficiencies, fraud etc.) and specific quality ensured by quality schemes. Quality schemes identify products and foodstuffs farmed and produced to exacting specifications.
On European level quality schemes are laid down by Regulations regarding organic farming, Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Indications and Traditional Specialities.
On national level quality schemes in Austria are based on national legislation (AMA seal of quality, AMA seal of organic farming). In addition, there are sets of requirements specified by private entities such as e.g. food companies or retailers which can include internationally acknowledged food standards and certification. Private labels advertising specific food quality reflect specific concerns and interests of the respective groups or associations in food processing or trade.
While the control system of European quality schemes and national schemes is determined by legal provisions, trademark holders of private labels define their individual inspection provisions.
Top image: © Österreich Werbung/ Reiberger