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19th Jan 2020

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Not a bug: insect 'novel food' fines vary widely across EU

  • Edible insects for sale in the US. EU rules require businesses to check if such 'novel foods' are authorised (Photo: Zac Bowling)

Food companies selling unauthorised 'novel foods' made from insects or algae face substantially different penalties depending on the EU country where they operate.

An access to documents request by EUobserver revealed that small businesses in the Netherlands would be given a €525 fine, while the potential punishment in Slovakia is anywhere between €1,000 and €500,000.

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  • Outside Europe, for example in Thailand, bugs are part of a normal diet. (Photo: Barnaby Dorfman)

It also showed that member states had not informed the commission of their fines, until asked by this website.

Companies that want to sell a novel food product – generally speaking food types that were not widely consumed before 15 May 1997 – are obliged to check if the product is on the EU list of authorised products.

The definition of novel foods covers, among other things, products made from insects, fungi, algae, and micro-organisms. As the realisation of the heavy carbon footprint of eating meat is increasing in Europe, these types of food may provide alternative protein sources.

Products only make it to the list if scientific evidence shows that there is no safety risk.

The EU has regulated so-called novel foods since 1997. On 1 January 2018, an updated regulation went into force, and it required from member states that they put in place penalties for violations of the regulation.

"The penalties provided for shall be effective, proportionate and dissuasive," the regulation said, in what is a standard clause in EU law.

But as with previous examples, like bills on open internet access and cheating with car emissions, the EU's 28 member states interpret that requirement differently.

Fines fragmentation

In Austria, the fine for breaking the novel foods rules is €50,000, and €100,000 in case of a repeat offence. In Estonia the level of fines depends on the type of offence, but €3,200 seems to be the highest possible fine. Latvia has a €700 fine in its law.

In Hungary the minimum fine is 10,000 forints (€32), the maximum is 500m forints (€1.6m), as long as that is not more than 10 percent of the company's net revenue in the preceding year.

Malta's fine is €2,329, and €4,658 in case of a repeat offence. The €525 fine in the Netherlands applies to businesses with less than 50 employees. If they have more than 50 employees, the fine is doubled.

Spain makes a distinction between minor and grave infringements, punishing the former with up to €5,000, and the latter with between €5,001 and €20,000. The fine in Slovenia is between €2,000 and €10,000.

The fragmentation in fines means that businesses operating in several member states will be punished differently for the same offence.

Missed deadline

Member states were required to inform the commission of the penalties they have put in place by 1 January 2018.

On 8 January, this website filed a freedom of information request, asking the commission to reveal which notifications it had received.

According to the commission's reply, not one member state had done so before the 1 January deadline.

But after the commission received EUobserver's request, it began to email the relevant food safety authorities in the member states, asking them to comply with the notification requirement.

One commission email from 30 January specifically asks member states to respond because of the access to documents request.

It raises the question whether member states would have voluntarily sent the commission their penalty provisions, had they not been prompted by the access to documents request.

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