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As EU nears agreement on new food rules, farmers fear fines

(Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- BRUSSELS, Feb 3 (Reuters) - The European Commission will adopt tough new food safety rules on Wednesday that would allow it to penalise member states by docking farm subsidies, according to a draft text obtained by Reuters on Monday.

Despite the concerns among member states and farmers of losing money, the Commission signalled its determination to increase the quality of food and animal feed controls.

"Where the Commission has evidence that member states do not respect Community feed and food law, the proposal aims to introduce a new tool to enforce the application of such law," the draft text said.

"This consists of the reduction of Community financial support given under the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy," it said.

The text has already undergone a number of revisions and could be amended further before Wednesday, EU officials said.

The draft is part of the EU executive's strategy to prevent future food crises by harmonising the varying controls on food and feed operators across the 15-nation bloc through an increase in the number and scope of inspections.

Contaminated feed was at the root of recent European food scares such as the discovery of an illegal hormone in Dutch pigs last summer and the 1999 Belgian scandal of dioxin in chickens.

The European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) welcomed the new plans, saying a new harmonised inspection system across Europe would close the final loophole in the EU food safety system where there is good legislation but weak enforcement.

"It's important to have the proper means in place to allow enforcement where we'll be able to compare controls in member states," said BEUC's Food Policy Adviser, Beate Kettletz.

But farmers criticised the Commission's plan to clamp down on member states which do not apply the new control system by docking farm subsidies.

"It's still up for debate whether it's legally possible to use the EU's agricultural budget and hold member states to ransom," said Beverley Wilson, assistant director of the UK's National Farmers' Union (NFU) office in Brussels.

The NFU said it was worried that, if passed by EU ministers, the bill would put an unreasonable burden on individual farmers who might only be small players in a food crisis.

"This is too harsh and there's no mention of an appeal in the proposal," Wilson said.

The Commission says the current procedure of taking an errant member state to the European Court of Justice is too protracted, lasting up to two years.

The draft document says current food and feed safety controls cost the EU budget three million euros a year and would jump to 16 million euros if the legislation is adopted. It did not say where the extra funds would be found.