European Law Monitor

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ELM News ImageEurope´s windows on the world: ports and product safety

Are products entering the EU safe for consumers? Who is making sure that dangerous goods do not get into the marketplace? Today, European Consumer Protection Commissioner Meglena Kuneva visited the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (Voedsel en Waren Autoriteit) and its laboratory in Zwijndrecht, as well as the bustling port of Rotterdam. "With close to 90% of all goods entering our market via sea ports, it is becoming increasingly important to control our external borders at ports such as Rotterdam" said Mrs. Kuneva. "I further believe that customs authorities could play a very important role in the enforcement of product safety requirements". During her visit, Mrs. Kuneva highlighted the relationship between ports and product safety, outlined the forthcoming EU strategy in this area, and stressed the importance of stepping up efforts to stop dangerous goods at ports. The Commissioner also had the chance to see first-hand the arrangements in place to ensure the safety of imported consumer products, witnessing the opening of a consignment in the harbour.

Cooperation and consumer product safety

The focus of the Commissioner´s visit was to stress the importance of ports in protecting EU consumers from dangerous goods. Some 90% of all products entering Europe come in via ports, and it is therefore crucial that any unsafe products are identified immediately upon arrival and before they are distributed to the marketplace.

Given the ever-increasing volume of imports into the EU from third countries, this is a challenging task for the authorities concerned. Rotterdam is Europe´s main port for both incoming and outgoing trade, handling some 377 million tonnes of goods last year alone. Once a cargo has been cleared, there is freedom of movement for these goods anywhere within the EU. A high level of vigilance, pooled resources and intelligence gathering between authorities in EU Member States is therefore necessary to help reduce the number of dangerous products arriving on the market and putting EU consumers at risk.

Products in the spotlight

Are we always confident that the countless products we use every day are safe? What types of products are dangerous? In 2006, EU Member States reported nearly 1000 everyday consumer products such as toys, electric kettles and Christmas lighting which, according to tests or producer's own assessment, could potentially pose risks to consumers including choking, electric shock and fire. Protecting consumers - and especially children - from dangerous goods is of paramount importance; to this end the Commission recently adopted a Decision requiring Member States to ensure that cigarette lighters on the EU market are child-resistant.

The Decision also bans lighters which are particularly appealing to children such as lighters resembling cartoon characters, food, mobile phones etc. Also toys themselves are often cause for concern, due to small or unsuitable parts causing children to choke or hurt themselves, or, in some cases, leading to skin irritations or even poisoning.

There are general rules on product safety, requiring producers and distributors to place only safe products on the market. For certain products, such as toys, electrical appliances, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals there are specific safety requirements. Of course, these requirements have to be enforced, which is the responsibility of nominated authorities in the Member States. They check that safety standards are met, take corrective actions, ensure that dangerous products are banned from the market and, if necessary, impose penalties. .

Moving forward

The Commission remains committed to promoting product safety, regulated at EU level by the General Product Safety Directive. The Directive makes it clear that all products on the EU market have to be safe for consumers, providing a framework for exchange of information concerning dangerous products. Several mechanisms and procedures have been put in place at EU level, such as RAPEX - a European rapid alert system for dangerous goods • which ensures the quick circulation of information.

Next to this, specific legislation was enacted to provide a framework for the co-operation between customs and market surveillance authorities regarding product safety. During her visit, Commissioner Kuneva stressed the importance of these measures and the continued cooperation of customs and market surveillance authorities in pursuit of a safer, healthier, and environmentally sound Europe.

Next steps

The Commission will over the next year pay particular attention to activities that will facilitate cooperation between customs and market surveillance authorities, including specific product safety training for customs officials, assisting the exchange of information on dangerous products such as lighters and amending the legislation governing practical co-operation.