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ASAE – Friend or foe of small producers and traders?

ASAE - Economic and Food Safety AuthorityASAE, the Economic and Food Safety Authority, was set up in 2005 under the Ministry of the Economy and in the nine years since it was set up, until 2014, it had amassed some 175 million euros from inspections, criminal proceedings, seizures and other offences. Since it started, ASAE, the authority specialising in food safety and economic surveillance, has triggered opposing sentiments. Viewed by some as the enemy of traditional businesses and what is known as “home-made” produce, it is recognised by many as a guarantor of food quality, consumer protection and fair competition between economic operators. Its operational policy is based on supervision, investigation and inspection and there have been many small producers and traders who have complained about the many fines that have been levied, but something is changing in ASAE’s procedures. Ten years after it was set up, the organisation that was seen as a foe is becoming more friendly.

Pedro Portugal Gaspar, aged 50, has been the Inspector-General of this national administrative authority for two years, and he tells us what is changing: the role of social responsibility and the possibility of a new framework law on economic offences which might make it possible to issue an “auto de advertência”, or a caution. This is a more educational approach, instead of an immediate fine and the ramifications of this for the trader. There may be a long way to go, but the first steps appear to have been taken.


Pedro Portugal Gaspar
Pedro Portugal Gaspar

ECO123:ASAE is seen by many people as the enemy of small traders. How do you see this situation?
Pedro Gaspar: Just a short time ago, the representative of a charitable organisation in Coimbra, which we gave counterfeit items of clothing to as a form of donation, told us that ASAE used to be seen as an organisation that only took, and that it was now giving as well. It was a spontaneous opinion and it is a way of thinking that is important because we aim to be seen as the friend of traders, but of traders who are established and pay their taxes.

There are also criticisms of the restrictions imposed on products that are called “home-made” or “traditional”.
When we strive to combat the misappropriation of quality products or demarcated regions, we are contributing to the quality of national produce. As has often happened with wine or olive oil, economic crimes that reflect on the image and the quality of our products in our country but also in the international market. The quality of traditional products is normally guaranteed, but they have to be inspected under the existing regulations. There were small changes in the legislation which altered existing practices a little, but this is to do with food safety. For example, as regards cattle, in terms of clandestine slaughtering, which still happens in some situations, we combat it specifically to ensure food safety. Maybe clandestine slaughtering was a traditional practice in some situations. We have to put it in context, what is important is that it doesn’t enter the supply chain and that it is dealt with reasonably.

Some traders see the work of ASAE as being a “hunt for fines” and regret that there is no prior notification or an initial intervention that is more educational.
This is a different question and is one that arises for example in the environmental area but not in the economic area. Whether there should initially be a caution in order to give a definite time for the correction of an offence, and later, at a second stage, there should or should not be a monetary sanction. ASAE’s role is confined to existing legislation, and as such its scope of action has a minimum and a maximum. It operates like the Highway Code, for example; if an offence is committed this involves a fine or monetary sanction that will vary from case to case depending on the size of the economic agent or their economic impact.

And is there potential for the creation of a caution instead of what normally happens with the levying of an immediate fine?
This would be a legislative matter which is out of ASAE’s hands. I have already spoken about this possibility, whether or not there should be a framework law for economic offences which could include this possibility. Rather like what exists in the field of labour offences or in the environmental area. But whether an inspecting body with a policing component could have an educational role? This would have to appear in a document or be incorporated into a legal framework and then have a specific procedure. That’s where the caution comes in, as happens in the environmental area. At present, it is only a hypothetical possibility because it doesn’t exist at present. It could be a possible course of action, but it is one that is not in the hands of ASAE, it concerns the political-legislative area and not the purely administrative sphere of action of ASAE. On our part, we have taken steps to hold public information sessions which we try to do together with business associations or with the local authorities, at which ASAE appears in a preventive role.

What is the role and the main objective of ASAE?
ASAE’s objective is to provide monitoring of economic activity in the food and non-food areas, aiming for consumer protection, public health and fair competition between operators, for example by combating the parallel economy which is one of our major concerns.

What has been the impact of the work that has been done?
In economic terms, and compared with the first half of 2013, as far as counterfeiting is concerned, the value of seized products increased six fold in the same period of 2014. This year, the number has not increased so significantly because it coincided with strategic measures on our part in terms of counterfeiting. We stopped intervening just at the retail level, for example at fairs, and we started working more in the areas of production and distribution. This means that fewer economic operators were inspected but better end results were obtained in operational terms.

As Inspector-General, how do you assess ASAE’s work in recent years?
ASAE Pedro Portugal GasparThe starting point is to think that we can always work better. The part of our work to do with operational results has functioned well, the strategy of going to the source more has been more effective. What is not working so well is to do with a technical question, that is, to try and obtain greater effectiveness in relation to the number of cases opened and to strive more for quality than for quantity. In terms of social responsibility, we are on the right track and we could play an even more important role. In terms of the image of ASAE, it has made a good impression on an international level thanks to its work within the EU; we possibly need to communicate some data about the scientific nature and the quality of our laboratories and results. Only ASAE and the Criminal Police have their own laboratories. Ours function for the food safety aspect, 70% of their work is to support the inspection activities and 30% serves to support other police organisations such as the GNR or the PSP, or for the economic agents themselves who request analyses owing to our certification, as in the case of wine or olive oil.

As far as social responsibility is concerned, when you say that ASAE is on the right track, what steps are being taken?
In the aspect of social responsibility, it has always been a major concern of ours to establish a policy of donations. The seized goods were normally destroyed and we have turned this approach around. Now, destruction is only the last resort because we have adopted an approach based on solidarity and this is the path that we want to follow. In the food area, we have to manage this very carefully to avoid risk factors. For example, this year ten tonnes of beef were donated for animals in the zoo. There was a risk for human consumption but the vets assured us that it was suitable for animals who loved the food; we are talking about beef from the Azores.

What is the main item that is donated and what is its destination?
Mainly charity institutions, organisations for the reinsertion of young people or prisons that express an interest via the ASAE website, the process then goes to the national commission of charity institutions. Often it also happens that it is the magistrates themselves, who are in charge of the legal processes, who determine that the seized material should be given to a specific institution and then ASAE will carry out the judicial decision. However, the economic agents can oppose the donation and opt for the destruction of the goods because they fear that the products could re-enter the market. That is why it is important that the charities we make donations to are responsible for concealing the product’s identity by removing the symbols and their respective labels.

You mentioned the possibility of there being a caution instead of a direct monetary fine for traders. What is being done in this regard?
This has already been talked about, I recall a public session in Espinho at which I was present and at which this question was raised, because there are examples in other sectors. It is good that people have the idea that offences have a practical consequence which is a fine, the levying of a monetary sanction and some of this goes to the organisations doing the inspections, in particular to ASAE. It is important to understand that cautions would lead to less revenue, but that’s not what matters. I am raising this subject, even though it goes against our own interests in obtaining revenue, and I think that it is an option that should be discussed because we cannot be obsessed with obtaining revenue. It is a direction we should consider but which is completely out of our hands at the moment with the existing legal framework, and ASAE has to comply with its role as an inspector in a concrete manner. At best, as we have done, we can open this subject up to public sessions. The caution could be a route to follow, as part of the idea of having a law for economic offences, and, looking at the situation as a whole, it could be one possible option. This is a challenge for the next government, to be able to do this because ASAE has no legislative powers. It is not about being more authoritarian, nor necessarily about demonstrating more power and acting by imposing measures as a public body, but rather being open to dialogue, justifying and talking to economic agents and being accountable for its activity.

About the author

Alexandre Moura (39). Born in Faro, has a degree in Communication Sciences Journalism. He has been a professional journalist since 2000 for the national and regional press, television and radio in the areas of current affairs, culture, sport and general information.

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