Nothing left to hide? Status quo on Dutch bill permitting active disclosure of food safety inspection resultsPosted: November 9, 2016
Recently, an amendment to the Dutch Health Act (Gezondheidswet) was voted in Dutch Parliament, allowing the Dutch Food Safety Authority (Nederlandse Voedsel en Warenautoriteit or NVWA) to actively disclose its inspection results. The change in the Health Act equally applies to inspection results obtained by the Dutch Health Inspectorate (Inspectie Gezondheidszorg or IGZ) and therefore, it received broad interest from the pharmaceutical, medical devices, and the food industry and their legal practitioners. Three meetings on this topics were organised by respectively the Dutch association of Food Law (NVLR), the Dutch Pharmaceutical Law Association (VFenR) and by the Dutch organisation for food retail and management VMT. This post will put you up to speed on the actual changes to be applied to the Health Act, as well as on the expected consequences of their implementation for food business operators (FBOs).
Importance of inspection results
Inspection results are important for whom it concerns directly (inspected companies, as they provide answers to questions such as: is your organisation compliant? Will a fine be imposed? Inspection results are furthermore of interest to others, such as consumers, journalists and other companies, including competitors, for a number of reasons. These reasons include (but are not limited to) knowing where to supply from and what places to avoid, the possibility to check if your supplier’s manufacturing processes are up to standards and the option to stay informed on what challenges your competitor is meeting.
Active vs. passive disclosure
All administrative bodies disclose information, on their website, in social media, in leaflets, etc. Under the Dutch Act on Public Access to Government Information (Wet openbaarheid van bestuur or WOB) citizens have the right to file a request for information on administrative matters. The disclosure of such information on request of a person is called passive disclosure. Such disclosure does not take place publicly, but the information concerned will solely be provided to the person who filed the request, unless it is rejected based on the limited grounds specified in the WOB. Active disclosure on the other hand means that the information is disclosed by an administrative body prior to any request for information. Such information is publicly available after disclosure. In case of inspection results of the NVWA, these will most likely be published on the website this administrative body.
Rationale disclosure inspection results
The rationale for both passive and active disclosure of inspection results is threefold.
(i) Transparency. Without information on the inspection, one cannot assess the quality of the inspection or view the results of the inspection. This transparency is also present in other areas such as inspection results of the Inspectorate of Education and the Health Care Inspectorate.
(ii) Trust. By showing the results, the public can see what the NVWA is doing and therefore the public can build trust in the NVWA.
(iii) Increased compliance. Negative results of an inspection can lead to serious problems towards consumers or customers, such as liability claims from suppliers who expected to be supplied with products produced in compliance with the applicable quality standards and hygiene regulations). In this way active disclosure increases the pressure on FBOs to comply.
The current system
Opposed to other inspectorates in the Netherlands, the active disclosure by the NVWA is currently not provided for in a specific Act. So far, the mechanism laid down in the WOB has been used as the framework for disclosure of inspection results. Article 8 WOB enables the NVWA to actively disclose information, provided this is done is a clearly understandable way and offering interested parties in due time the opportunity to comment. As far as a request for information by any company or citizen is concerned, there are predefined grounds on which an administrative body cannot freely disclose information, being absolute and relative grounds. The absolute grounds are found to be of such importance that publication is interdicted, like confidential commercial information relating to the safety of the state or information containing personal data. The relative grounds relate for instance to privacy matters or to disproportional harm that could be created by publication. Such grounds have to be weighed against the interests of disclosure. In the current framework, the interested party can express a provisional opinion with respect to any intended publication by NVWA, which has to be dealt with before publication. This mechanism will disappear under the new system.
The new system
When the amendment of the Health Act will enter into force, the NVWA will not only have the option to actively disclose information, but will be obliged to do so. In the legal framework, the assessment of interests is already taken into account, which makes it unnecessary to do another assessment each time the NVWA decides to actively disclose information. In future, the option to express a provisional opinion by the NVWA will no longer be available. The only way to ensure that the information is not disclosed is starting summary proceedings before a civil court. If any interested party is doing so, NVWA will then be forced to suspend its decision to disclose information until the court decides on the matter. In case the NVWA will disclose the inspection report, the NVWA will provide the option for FBOs to provide a reaction to the inspection results, which will be disclosed together with the inspection results. In addition to the change applied to the Health Act, an underlying decree needs to specify more detailed rules on what information exactly needs to be published in what format. In the discussions on the amendment of the Health Act another amendment was added which ensures the underlying decree can only be amended with the approval of Dutch Parliament.
Current status of the amendment
On the 11th of October the House of Representatives of the Netherlands (Tweede Kamer) accepted the proposed changes to the Health Act and amended some parts. The Dutch Senate (Eerste Kamer) accepted the amendments without making any additional amendments on the 1th of November. However, the change of the Health Act has not yet entered into force and it is currently still unclear when the exact date of entry into force will be. Guestimates are hinting at June 2017, however the Ministry of Health Welfare and Sport is still working on the underlying decree on what information has to be published and in what format. There is a fair chance the amendment will only enter into force simultaneously with this underlying decree. In such case the entry into force of the changes to the Health Act will most likely be later than the guestimate mentioned above.
Situation in other EU countries and NVWA pilot
Other EU Member States already have a system of active disclosure of inspection results for restaurants in using a system of easily understandable designations or colours (Denmark and Ireland for instance). In those countries, the outcome of the inspection is presented at the entrance of the inspected restaurant, in order to give the public an overview of the level of compliance at first glance. For instance, a green colour or a happy face means that the restaurant is compliant and colours closer to red or a less happy face mean the place was less compliant. In the Netherlands, the NVWA launched a pilot for disclosure of inspection results for lunchrooms, which were disclosed via an app. This app subsequently displayed the results on a map. The map showed the lunchrooms in four different colours, depending on the level of compliance. The idea was to provide a quick overview of the lunchrooms and the level of compliance. However, the reaction of the minister of Health, Welfare and Sport to this format was negative due to interpretation issues, particularly interpretation of the colours. There are also lists of inspected products instead of inspected FBOs. The experience gained therewith and during the pilot will have to be evaluated in order to choose an acceptable form for the disclosure of over 200.000 inspections done each year in the Netherlands by the NVWA.
The proposed changes to the Health Act have been much criticised. The active disclosure of the inspection results together with the imposed sanctions can be viewed as punitive sanction in addition to the sanction itself imposed based on the findings during the inspection. In the explanatory notes on the amendment of the Health Act, the government explains that active disclosure should not be perceived as a punitive sanction and therefore not a criminal charge in the sense of Art. 6 ECHR. In case the disclosure will be viewed as a punitive sanction, article 6 ECHR will be applicable, meaning the procedural safeguards embodied in this article will apply. Basically, the government states that the disclosure does not aim at punishing the inspected party, and therefore is not an additional sanction. However, the arguments provided by the government in the explanatory notes are not very convincing. Assuming the disclosure will lead to more transparency, consumers and customers will be aware of the non-compliance due to the disclosure. This disclosure can in turn decrease the trust in the non-compliant producer, which could mean a decline in sales or even liability claims from consumers or customers. It is not the fines imposed by the NVWA, but the disclosure of the inspection results, which leads to these (potential) damages of the producer, whom will not have had the chance to remedy the situation before it is out in the open. This is all the more important, as so far there is no evidence that such public disclosure indeed will lead to an increased level of compliance. Moreover, this situation does not seem to be in line with competition law, which constitutes the regular level playing field of any FBO, just like it is for manufacturers of medical devices or medicinal products. Therefore, competition law elements should in our opinion be an aspect of the legislation concerning disclosure. In the explanatory notes to the amendment, this aspect has not even been mentioned.
As a result of a change applied to the Dutch Health Act, the first steps towards active disclosure of inspection results from the NVWA have been initiated. The actual implementation thereof depends on the underlying decree, which is still under construction. This is why is not clear as of when the legal basis for active disclosure of NVWA inspection results will be operational. As of this moment however, FBOs will be subject to increased enforcement measures, without the effect thereof being necessarily positive. We will keep an eye out for you and report on any relevant development in this field, as they are likely to have an important impact for each FBO.
The author thanks Floris Kets for his contribution to this post.