Active disclosure of inspection results: how to prevent naming & shaming?

Since 1 September 2020, the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) has been given the power to publish  certain inspection results (including identification details of the inspected FBO) faster than before. Prior to that date, the legal basis for disclosure could primarily be found in article 8 of the Dutch Freedom of Information Act (in Dutch: Wet openbaarheid van bestuur). This act creates a duty for the administrative body concerned, for example the NVWA, to publicly provide information when this is in the interest of good and democratic governance. However, article 10 of the Freedom of Information Act requires an individual balancing of interests in order to avoid disproportionate disadvantage for the parties involved as a result of the publication. It also prohibits disclosure of certain sensitive information, such as company and manufacturing data that has been confidentially communicated to the government. This blog post explains what has changed since 1 September 2020, which FBOs are affected and what arguments they can use to prevent disclosure.

Additional basis of disclosure as of 1 September 2020
As of 1 September 2020, the NVWA is additionally bound by the Decree on the Disclosure of Supervision and Implementation Data under the Health and Youth Act (in Dutch: Besluit openbaarmaking toezicht- en uitvoeringsgegevens Gezondheidswet en Jeugdwet, hereinafter: Decree on Disclosure), as further elaborated in the Policy Rule on Active Disclosure of Inspection Data by the NVWA (in Dutch: Beleidsregel omtrent actieve openbaarmaking van inspectiegegevens door de NVWA, hereinafter: Policy Rule on Disclosure). This power of disclosure is based on article 44 of the Dutch Health Act (in Dutch: Gezondheidswet). Disclosure in accordance with the Decree on Disclosure does not require the balancing of interests: disclosure of information will simply take place when indicated in the relevant annex to the Decree on Disclosure. Companies that wish to prevent publication of information related to their business will therefore have to invoke factual criteria, such as that the information to be disclosed contains incorrect information or concerns information that is excluded from disclosure in Article 44(5) of the Health Act.

Required actions when companies disagree with disclosure
The publication of information as based on the Decree on Disclosure has consequences for the way affected companies can stand up to prevent disclosure and the speed with which they will need to object. Where the Freedom of Information Act offers affected companies the possibility to share their opinion (in Dutch: zienswijze) in reaction to the administrative body’s intention to disclose the information in question, this possibility does not exist under the Decree on Disclosure. If and when an affected company does not agree with disclosure on the basis of the latter decree, this company has two weeks to object to the respective administrative body’s intention of disclosure and needs to seek interim relief measures within this time frame in order to actually suspend the disclosure. In addition, under the Decree on Disclosure companies are provided the option to write a short response that will be published together with the information subject to disclosure. In this way, affected companies are given the opportunity to provide the outside world with a substantive (but very summary) response to the information to be made public. The Policy Rule on Disclosure in fact also grants this right of response to information disclosed by the NVWA under the Freedom of Information Act.

Relevant for all FBOs?
The aforementioned additional legal basis for disclosure by the NVWA applies for the time being to a limited number of supervisory areas only, namely the inspection results of the NVWA with regard to (i) fish auctions, (ii) the catering industry, and (iii) project-based studies into the safety of goods other than food and beverages. These areas may be expanded in the future, according to the explanatory notes to the Decree on Disclosure.

However, for companies with so-called borderline products that navigate between different regulatory regimes, it is relevant to know that Dutch Health and Youth Care Inspectorate (IGJ) has broader powers to actively disclose inspection results under the Decree on Disclosure. Since 1 February 2019, the IGJ has already been publishing information on the basis of this decree regarding, amongst other, compliance with the Dutch Medicines Act (in Dutch: Geneesmiddelenwet). This means that when the IGJ takes enforcement measures against a FBO handling food supplements or other foodstuffs that qualify as (unregistered) medicines, it may be obliged to make public the respective supervisory information. The same applies to enforcement under the Dutch Medical Devices Act (in Dutch: Wet op de medische hulpmiddelen) – think diet preparations – and the Opium Act (in Dutch: Opiumwet) – think CBD and other cannabis products.

An example: melatonin-containing foodstuff labeled as a medicine
An example of a FBO that was faced with disclosure in accordance with the Decree on Disclosure by the IGJ concerns a company involved in melatonin-containing products. The IGJ intended to publish an inspection report on these products, from which it would follow that the products in question qualify as medicines and that the FBO concerned would therefore illegally place them on the market (namely without the required licenses under the Medicines Act). The FBO at stake applied for a preliminary injunction suspending the publication decree. On 8 July 2020, the preliminary relief judge rendered a judgment in this case.

Possible factual criteria to prevent naming & shaming
Although disclosure under the Decree on Disclosure is obligatory and disclosure decisions thus do not require the balancing of interests, the above-mentioned melatonin case gives good insights into the factual criteria that can nevertheless be invoked to prevent disclosure. In this case, the respective FBO brought forward the following arguments.

The respective inspection report excluded from disclosure

Article 3.1(a) of Part II of the Annex to the Decree on Disclosure excludes certain supervisory information from disclosure, including the results of inspections and investigations established as a result of a notification by a third party. The FBO at stake (hereinafter: “Applicant’) takes the position that the present inspection report was initiated as a result of a notification or enforcement request by a competitor. This would mean that the respective inspection report must not be made public.

The preliminary relief judge cannot agree with this position in the present case and rules that the inspection report is clearly related to an earlier letter from the IGJ to the applicant in which it announced the intensification of supervision of melatonin-containing products. Moreover, the case file was silent on a notification or enforcement request by a competitor.

The preliminary relief judge additionally states that it agrees with the IGJ’s viewpoint that the inspection report does not concern a penalty report (the report was drafted within the context of supervision and only indicates that Applicant will be informed about the to be imposed enforcement measure by separate notice). The fact that Applicant had earlier received a written warning for violation of the Medicines Act has no influence on this. The inspection report is therefore neither excluded from publication pursuant to article 3.1(a)(ii) of Part II of the Annex to the Decree on Disclosure, which makes an exception for “results of inspections and investigations that form the basis of decisions to impose an administrative fine”.

Disclosure in violation of the goal of the Health Law: outdated scientific foundation conclusions IGJ

The purpose of disclosure under the Health Act, in the wording of article 44(1) of that act, is to promote compliance with the regulations, to provide the public with insight into the way in which supervision and implementation of the Decree on Disclosure is carried out and into the results of those operations. Pursuant to Article 44a(9) of the Health Act, information should not be made public where this is or may violate aforementioned purpose of disclosure. Applicant takes the position that publication of the present inspection report does not contribute to improved protection of the public or to better information about the effects of melatonin, as a result of which the report should not be disclosed. More specifically, the applicant complains that the report (i) contains obvious errors and inaccuracies, (ii) gives the impression that it concerns a penalty decision, and (iii) is based on an incorrectly used framework to determine whether the qualification of a medicine is met.

The preliminary relief judge first of all notes that the fact that Applicant does not agree with the conclusions of the inspection report does not mean that the report therefore contains obvious inaccuracies. The preliminary relief judge further summarizes Applicant’s position as follows: (i) the IGJ wrongly took a daily dosage of 0.3 mg melatonin to determine the borderline between foodstuff and medicines; (ii) in doing so, the IGJ did not demonstrate that products with a daily dose of 0.3 mg melatonin actually acts as a medicine; (iii) moreover, the product reviews refer to outdated scientific publications (a more recent study by one of the authors thereof as well as more recent EFSA reports have not been included in the inspection report), whereas the current state of scientific knowledge must be taken into account according to established case-law. For these reasons, the preliminary relief judge agreed with Applicant that the IGJ has not made it sufficiently clear that from a daily dose of melatonin of 0.3 mg or more a ‘significant and beneficial effect on various physiological functions of the body’ occurs scientifically – according to the current state of scientific knowledge – and that products with a daily dose of melatonin of 0.3 mg or more act as a medicine”. Having said that, the preliminary relief judge did not accept Applicant’s statement that disclosure is contrary to the purpose of disclosure under the Health Act. Instead, the preliminary relief judge sought to comply with the so-called principles of sounds administration (in Dutch: algemene beginselen van behoorlijk bestuur) and ruled that the disclosure decision was not diligently prepared and insufficiently substantiated.

Incorrect facts

Applicant claims that the inspection report contains various inaccuracies, including the incorrect information that Applicant would produce melatonin itself. Applicant had already raised these inaccuracies in her response to the draft version of the report, but this had not resulted into adjustments in the final, to be published version of the report. The preliminary relief judge ruled on this matter that the IGJ should further investigate Applicant’s concerns and should amend the report where relevant. After all, the content of the report must be correct and diligently compiled. The mere fact that Applicant was given the opportunity to respond to the draft version of the report and that the IGJ responded to this in its decision to disclose the report does not mean that this requirement is met.

Violation of article 8 ECHR: disclosure has a major impact on Applicant’s image

Applicant claims that the planned disclosure will have a major impact on Applicant’s image and that of the natural person involved in the company. This is in violation of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) concerning the right to respect for private and family life. The Explanatory Memorandum to the Amendment to the Health and the Youth Care Act (in Dutch: Memorie van Toelichting op de Wijziging van de Gezondheidswet en de Wet op de Jeugdzorg) deals with this in detail. It emphasizes that the disclosure of inspection data does normally not constitute an interference with private life, because the data normally relates to legal persons and not to natural persons. The aforementioned Explanatory Memorandum therefore concludes that article 8 ECHR does not preclude disclosure on the grounds of the Health Act. Nevertheless, the court has at all times the competence to review a disclosure decision in the light of that article, in which case it will in fact have to balance the interests involved. In the present case, preliminary relief judge sees however no reason to assume a violation of article 8 ECHR.

Although the above shows that the preliminary relief judge in the respective melatonin case does not agree with all arguments put forward by Applicant, the request for suspension of publication of the contested inspection report was nevertheless granted thanks to factual criteria that were sufficiently substantiated. In particular the (implicit) argument that the conclusions in the inspection report lack a sufficient factual basis affects the essence of the information to be disclosed.

Conclusion
Rapid action is required to prevent active disclosure of inspection results under the Decree on Disclosure as these will usually be published after two weeks. This is not only relevant for FBOs active in the supervisory areas of the NVWA as designated in the Decree on Disclosure, but also for FBOs that operate at the interface of legal regimes under the supervision of the IGJ. To suspend disclosure, interim relief proceedings will have to be instituted as the Decree on Disclosure no longer provides for the possibility of submitting an opinion prior to publication. Moreover, affected companies cannot invoke the argument of suffering a disproportionate disadvantage as a result of the publication. Publication on the basis of the Decree on Disclosure is namely not subject to an individual balancing of interests (apart from an assessment on the basis of article 8 ECHR, insofar relevant). Although the arguments that companies can bring forward to prevent publication are therefore more limited than in the case of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, this does not mean that companies cannot successfully object an intention of disclosure. The melatonin case mentioned above is an example of this: conclusions that are not based on most recent science may not be published without adequate justification. Also, facts that are alleged to be incorrect should be further investigated before disclosure.


Nothing left to hide? Status quo on Dutch bill permitting active disclosure of food safety inspection results

nvwaRecently, 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.

Criticism

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.

Conclusion

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.


Timmers Promotions