Official controls on food sold over the Internet are still limited, according to a report from the European Commission

Controls of food sold online were limited and mainly focused on registered food business operators. Non-compliances were mostly related to labeling and health claim requirements. Online marketing of dangerous substances as food supplements was found in a few cases.

With internet sales of food increasing at EU level such controls will need to be enhanced due to the anticipated fast growth of e-commerce. Enforcement and cooperation with non-EU countries is the main constraint to effectively control food sold via the Internet.
The report is based on fact-finding missions to Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in 2017 by the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission (DG Health and Food Safety).
Most of these countries did not have specific national legislation for this type of sale. Official controls cover food hygiene (temperature requirements, transport, and traceability) labeling, health, and nutritional claims.
Challenge to identify
Identifying non-registered food business operators with an online presence has proved challenging due to limited resources and operators able to easily and rapidly enter and exit the online marketplace without being aware that EU food safety regulatory requirements governing traditional businesses (i.e. hygiene standards and labeling) also apply to sales online.
The presence of online sellers who actively try to avoid official controls by changing their digital identity is an additional hurdle for authorities.
Authorities in the member states recognized the need to enhance controls for online sales of food and have taken steps to adapt traditional inspection and sampling activities to ensure food supplied online is safe and subject to an appropriate level of official controls. The approach taken varies since it has been adapted to existing authority structures and depends on the priority given by to the area.
Differing national rules
In two member states, national legislation gives official staff increased investigation powers which enable them to use assumed identities to control the sale of goods and the supply of services over the Internet. In another member state, authorities can access private dwellings in case of ongoing investigations when used as the physical address of the businesses to have a full picture of sellers’ on-site activities.
The official control Regulation (EU) No 2017/625 applicable by the end of 2019 provides the legal basis for authorities to shop online without revealing their identity and to use the products received as official samples. Currently, not all countries are permitted to use assumed identities.
Officials from countries visited have attended the EU-funded Better Training for Safer Food (BTSF) course on control of e-commerce of food and there is an expert working group on official controls of e-commerce of food set up by the Commission.
The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) in Germany and the European Commission are organizing an international conference on the eCommerce of food in Berlin from June 24 to 26, 2019. The event will be in English with translation into German.
Operation results
In 2017, the Commission organized the first EU coordinated control plan on food offered via the Internet. Authorities from 25 member states, Switzerland and Norway checked nearly 1,100 websites and found around 740 non-compliant offers, i.e. 425 offers of unauthorized novel foods and 315 of food supplements with medicinal claims. A second such action is being planned.
The system for registration of establishments does not ensure correct identification of all food businesses operating online, which impacts the ability of authorities to organize official controls. In most cases, registration forms do not explicitly take into account the online dimension and such information is not considered for the risk rating and determining the type or frequency of controls by local authorities.
Online controls are in most cases done in conjunction with physical ones. If operators sell exclusively on the Internet and have no physical food-related activities then controls are exclusively/largely on their websites.
Some foods, in particular supplements, are more intensely targeted, due to the importance attributed to their online sale and distribution. Surveys covering food supplement sale sites have recorded high numbers of non-compliances.
Enforcement issues
Depending on the risk identified, enforcement measures by authorities have included requirements for removing claims, revising product labeling, removing the product from the market, recalling it from consumers, and seizing items.
The option for enforcement abroad (fines on operators based in other member states or in non-EU countries) had not been used by any of the authorities in the nations visited regarding food.
Difficulties have been highlighted in using online purchases for complex sampling protocols such as aflatoxin (e.g. ensuring the representatively of the batch). In some cases, authorities are not able to take samples of food products identified during online investigations on the spot since they are no longer available by the time they visit the premises.
“Proactive searches to identify unregistered food business operators are up to date very limited and some member states do not have the legal basis to carry certain activities or to use tools necessary to control this type of sales, such as mystery shopping. The enforcement of EU food chain legislation on online sales is cumbersome especially concerning entities based in non-EU countries with which there is no established cooperation,” according to the report.

Joe Whitworth