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What rights do you have as a consumer? But above all, what are your obligations?

Today we celebrate the World Consumer Rights Day. The following text presents consumer rights that fall under the remit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, and the Administration for Food Safety, Veterinary Sector and Plant Protection (a body within the Ministry).

Infographics

Infographics | Author MKGP

The right to safe food: all stakeholders in the agri-food chain share the responsibility for ensuring food safety

Food is considered safe when it is suitable for consumption and does not have any adverse impact on our health. This is one of the basic consumer rights. Food safety needs to be guaranteed along the entire "agri-food chain", including every stage of food production and processing and food distribution to consumers. Everyone shares the responsibility for ensuring safety within their competences. Knowledge, cooperation and communication between all stakeholders are crucial.

Food safety is guaranteed by food business operators (food producers and processors, distributors, retailers, etc.) It is essential to draft and implement a relevant European and national legislation, representing a legal base for the work of food business operators and official inspections.

In order to ensure food safety, it is necessary to fulfil the requirements of food law and to implement good practices in agriculture, production, retail, transport, storage, and hygiene. This must be based on the expertise of different research institutions and laboratories.

Despite being the last part of the agri-food chain, consumers are very important. It is necessary to provide consumers with appropriate information, to raise their awareness, and to train and educate them. The appropriate food-handling practices during or after the purchase of foodstuffs reflect our mutual responsibility. It is necessary to adopt good hygiene practice: to follow hygiene practices for hands, food containers and utensils, to ensure an appropriate storage temperature, to prevent cross-contamination of foods (separating clean and unclean tasks), and to guarantee an appropriate heat treatment of foodstuffs.

The right to information: consumer information must be provided and consumers are therefore advised to read food labels

One of the goals of the European food law is to improve the possibilities of consumers to take better decisions, benefiting their health. It is especially important that consumers have appropriate information on foodstuffs when they choose their everyday food. Food business operators are responsible for the appropriate food labelling and inspection services verify compliance of the labelling with food laws as part of their official inspections.

Food labelling, which is any information on the food label, must be comprehensible to an average consumer and it should not mislead them. Producers and other food business operators should label and market food products in a fair and understandable way in accordance with the legislation. In the framework of an official inspection, inspectors verify compliance of food labelling and marketing to examine if they are misleading to consumers. However, consumers are responsible to read the labelling and thus acquire information on the characteristics of foodstuffs that we wish to choose and include in our menu.

Contemporary information technology enables consumers to access a large number of information. On the one hand, this helps to raise their awareness, but on the other hand, the abundance of information makes it difficult to choose a correct, independent and useful information.

Consumers must therefore retain reliable information on foodstuffs, read the labels before buying the products, and report all potential misleading practices and irregularities to the Administration for Food Safety, Veterinary Sector and Plant Protection (gp.uvhvvr@gov.si).

The right to choose – the possibility of access to a diverse range of foodstuffs

The right to choose presupposes that consumers can access diverse foodstuffs, but also that a wide range of foodstuffs is available. The foodstuffs that are on the market must be safe and must not pose a threat to consumer health. The quality of foodstuffs varies because consumers have the right to diversity, which also means that they can choose food products of different qualities. Nevertheless, the characteristics related to quality need to be clearly labelled and consumers need to be informed about them.

An important role in ensuring the right to choose food products is played by both European (protected designation of origin, protected geographical indication, traditional speciality guaranteed, and the organic logo) and national (selected quality, integrated production, and the designation of higher quality) quality schemes. The aim of quality schemes is to protect agricultural products and foodstuffs. It is possible to protect the name of the product, the production method, and the recipe for its preparation. We can recognise the products by the European and national labels on their packaging.

Quality schemes are used for agricultural products and foodstuffs with special qualities or characteristics linked to their geographical origin of production, their production or processing methods, traditional recipes or procedures, or for products that exceed quality standards, and the requirements for the protection of human, animal or plant health, animal welfare or the environment. Each quality scheme possesses its own sign or label. Agricultural products and foodstuffs covered by quality schemes are produced according to well-defined procedures and their production is additionally supervised by certification bodies that issue certificates on compliance with requirements of a particular scheme. Consumers are thus able to recognise the added value of the foodstuff and the labels – if they are familiar with them – make their choice easier.

Quality schemes and the promotion of local food enhance the competitiveness of the Slovenian agri-food industry, encourage local production and consumption, improve self-sufficiency, and provide consumers with credible information on quality and nutritional benefits of agricultural products and foodstuffs. All this guarantees the right of consumers to a variety of options.

Consumer’s obligations – treating food with respect, and preventing and reducing food waste

In the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations set an important target: halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along the supply chain by 2030. The EU Member States also committed to achieving this target.

On a proposal from Argentina and with the support from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations General Assembly designated 29 September as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, which was celebrated for the first time last year. Slovenia has also joined the celebration. By celebrating this day, we will significantly contribute to raising the awareness of this important challenge and to seeking possible solutions for achieving the target that consists of halving food waste and food losses at all levels. Even though food is lost or wasted at all stages of food supply chain – on farms, in transport, in treatment, processing and production, in shops and restaurants, and in the public sector (kindergartens, schools, hospitals, retirement homes), the biggest share of food waste comes from our households.

In this respect, it is crucial to change the habits of every individual, thus contributing to a more sustainable food production and consumption with less food loss and waste. We should therefore respect the food and the work of our farmers. Buy and prepare food with care to avoid creating food waste.