Europe is focusing too much on food safety risks from animal products and not enough resources on risks related to plants, a senior European Commission official has warned.

To date, regulators had focused primarily on products of animal origin when tackling food safety issues, said Michael Scannell, director of the food and veterinary service at the EC’s directorate general for health and the consumer (DG Sanco).

But although the bacteria involved in food scares often originated from animals, the “vectors of transmission” were increasingly plant products rather than animal products, he said. “We need a much stronger regulatory focus on plant health and on products of non-animal origin,” he told a conference on the future of EU food regulation at the Lithuanian embassy last week.

This would necessitate ramping up European regulators’ expertise in plant health issues, Scannell said, adding that plant health experts were currently difficult to come by.

He cited salmonella outbreaks as an example of food safety problems that increasingly involved plant products. In addition, a major E.coli scare in Germany in 2011 was traced back to contaminated sprouted seeds.

A spokeswoman for the Food Standards Agency said that data from Public Health England showed fruit and veg sources, as well as rice, had accounted for 13.5% of foodborne illness outbreaks reported in England and Wales between 2010 and 2012.

This was a much lower proportion than outbreaks attributable to animal products, but plant-related outbreaks could be very serious, she said. “We are committed to risk-based approaches for targeting controls on all foods, regardless of whether they are of animal or plant origin,” she added. “The FSA continues to look at the food chain as a whole to identify where resources can be best targeted to protect consumers.”

Scannell made his remarks as part of a wider debate about the future of EU food regulation, including changes to the EU’s regime on official controls. During his speech, Scannell said “people tend to underestimate the importance of food safety” and stressed all parts of the supply chain needed to make it a priority to supply consumers with safe food. “We need to be science-based in our decision-making, but there will always be a bias of tough regulation when it comes to food because the consequences could be huge if you get things wrong,” he added.

Scannell also stressed that ‘safe’ food did not just mean safety from a microbiological perspective, but “ethical, religious and sustainability concerns are all part of the safe food concept for consumers”.

The European Commission is in the process of reforming the EU’s regime on official controls in the food supply chain and to replace regulation 882/2004, which currently regulates official controls. It published draft proposals on the new regime earlier this year, including plans for industry play a greater role in paying for official controls.

Scannell said the EC’s approach to reforming regulation 882/2004 would focus on creating a “more integrated system” with more effective controls as well as “greater linkage between public and private controls”. He stressed the EC’s proposals were “not a carte blanche for more money coming in” to the system, and that the intention was to create greater transparency for industry and consumers on how official controls work.

The FSA has launched a consultation on the EC’s proposals, which will run until 9 January.