Union food safety is finally a priority

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Series Details Vol.7, No.27, 5.7.01, p9
Publication Date 05/07/2001
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Date: 05/07/01

The latest report on the European Food Authority is a step in the right direction, says Dick Leonard

When measured in terms of its likely effect on the lives and welfare of EU citizens, few European Parliament reports rival the importance of the one approved last month concerning the projected European Food Authority.

Drafted by Phillip Whitehead, a British Labour MEP perhaps best-known for his work as a producer of ground-breaking television documentaries, it represents a considerable advance on the draft regulation tabled by the Commission.

The establishment of a European authority charged with food safety is long overdue, though it has taken a series of disasters - starting with the contaminated olive oil scandal which killed 600 in Spain 20 years ago, through the tragic BSE saga, the dioxin scandal in

Belgium which contributed to the defeat of the previous government and the more recent outbreaks of foot-and- mouth disease in Britain and swine fever in Spain - to bring it close to the top of the agenda.

It was Romano Prodi who first argued the need for a European authority, and it was agreed at the Nice summit that it should be set up no later than 2002. The

Commission's proposal was, however, deeply flawed.

It set out grandiose objectives, but proposed only a small operating budget for the projected authority - a sure recipe for disappointment.

The Whitehead Report does not seek to challenge the size of the budget (less than one-third of that for the British Food Safety Authority), but argues forcibly that the remit of the authority should be sharply focused on issues related to food safety only.

Other fields, such as animal health and welfare, genetically-modified organisms and nutrition, should only be covered in terms of their impact on food safety. "Do less, but do it better" is the underlying refrain of the Parliament's report.

Altogether it proposed some 200 amendments to the Commission draft; only around 100 of these were accepted last Thursday when the Council

of Ministers reached a common position on the proposal, which is subject to co-decision with the European Parliament. This is by no means the end of the story, and on

Tuesday night Whitehead was meeting with Commissioner David Byrne to press for further concessions, though many of the Parliament's key demands seem now to have been met.

It seems certain, for example, that the body will be renamed as the European Food Safety Authority, though this was not formally conceded by the Council last week. Whitehead identifies the elements of food safety policy as risk management, risk assessment and risk

communication. The first is properly the concern of the member states and the Commission and should be no part of the duties of the new authority.

Its essential function - in partnership with national food safety authorities where these exist - will be that of risk-assessment, but it must also have the right and duty to communicate its findings not only to the management authorities but to the general public as well.

The report therefore puts great emphasis on the need for transparency. It cites with approval the evidence of the chairman of the British Food Standards Agency (John Krebs), who told the Parliament that "despite initial misgivings, his board has found it advantageous to meet in public, to post its agenda and minutes on the internet, and to publish its advice to the government at the time it is given, and not after the digestive juices of governmental interpretation have absorbed it".

The Parliament is still at odds with the Commission over the membership of its management board. The Commission proposes that its initial membership should be 16, which seems likely to result in the arbitrary choice of one representative from each member state, regardless of individual merit, and progressive enlargement as more and more member states join.

The Parliament says instead that it should consist of "12 representatives proposed by the Commission following a process of open application through the European institutions, including two representatives of consumers and two of the food industry". "All appointments," it adds, "shall be merit-based [and] individually subject to confirmatory hearings by the European Parliament."

The Parliament is also seeking explicit protections for whistle-blowers to be written into the regulation, and although it makes no specific recommendation on the siting of the new body, gives a veiled warning to the Commission and the Council that the "decision should not be made as part of a spoils system among the member states".

This could refer to an earlier decision to set up the EU's Food and Veterinary Office at a site allegedly in Dublin, but which wound up in a remote location, which just happened to be in the constituency of the then Irish Taoiseach .

Feature on the progress of the legislative proposal to establish a European Food Authority.

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