EUROPEAN COMMUNITY FOOD SAFETY POLICY
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the request by the House of Lords European Communities Committee for comments on the European Community (EC) Food Safety Policy. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience in agriculture and food science.
It should be noted that these comments are presented from the standpoint of scientific management, risk management, public accountability and achieving consumer confidence in the safety and integrity of the food supply.
It is a fundamental principle that greatest management control and highest accountability and consumer assurance are achieved when the points of control and assurance are located close to the processes that need to be controlled and close to the consumers that need to be assured. Thus there is a strong case for the regulation and control of the food chain being an area of devolved power. Moreover, in practice, food issues are too politically charged for any Member State government to accept a view that they are someone else’s responsibility.
The specific areas of consideration are addressed below:
How strong is the case for a European Food Authority?
There is certainly a need to ensure the highest standards of food safety throughout the EU. Recent food scares have demonstrated that the framework for maintaining these standards has been lacking or ineffective. However, eight of the fifteen EU member states, including the UK, France and Germany, have now set in place Food Standards Agencies or their equivalents. If the proposed new authority is merely to duplicate the work of national agencies then it is unnecessary and will lead to a blanket increase in bureaucracy and regulation, which is likely to further reduce the competitiveness of the EU food industries. If, on the other hand, the intention is to complement the work of national agencies and through collaboration to strengthen the provision of effective, independent and well-founded scientific advice on food matters throughout Europe then this could be useful. This would be the case especially for those member states which do not have a Food Agency of their own, and in the context of candidate countries whose standards of food safety are somewhat different from those of the established EU members. In particular, there is a clear and important task to be undertaken in the open provision of statistical and information services, in the agreement of standardised scientific approaches and procedures, and in ensuring that there is a reliable ‘rapid alert’ system in operation. The White Paper clearly states that the European Food Authority (EFA) would not have a ro1e in risk management. If the advice from EFA and from national agencies to the Commission is in conflict, as we have recently seen in the case of BSE between the UK and France, then there is a danger that the resulting political fall-out will damage the credibility of EFA and the national Agency, to the detriment of both.
What is the added value of action at Community level?
There will only be significant added value if regulation ensures a level playing field for all food producers and processors throughout the EU and guarantees common standards of food safety. Although there are different national standards and approaches, clearly the principles of European integration and the free movement of goods requires cross-national authority. However, to police such regulations would be both expensive and extremely bureaucratic. Recent breakdowns in the safety of the food chain, most notably the Belgian dioxin ‘problem’, have been the result of a lack of common sense procedures at the local level and a weakness of local inspection and enforcement rather than the result of any shortcoming in the regulatory framework, either national or EU. The White Paper also indicates that EC Inspectors are not necessarily effective in ensuring uniform application of EC policies throughout the Union. One must conclude that the value added is likely to be small in relation to the high bureaucratic cost. This raises a serious problem, in that the food and agricultural industries in the EU are presently greatly overburdened with regulations and controls, to the point where their international competitiveness is being severely compromised. However, the potential ‘prospect’ offered by the Commission is even more tiers of regulation and control, and a further increase in blanket bureaucracy.
What powers should the proposed Authority have?
The particular responsibilities of the proposed Authority – risk assessment and communication on food safety issues – are appropriate functions for a European Body, and the proposal not to transfer risk management competencies to the Authority is well justified. The Authority should be able to provide impartial scientific advice of the highest quality possible both to the Commission and to national governments on a re-active and pro-active basis. Where further research is necessary in order to provide such advice, the EFA should have the responsibility of commissioning this from the best sources available. It is also essential that there is an open and reliable ‘rapid alert’ system to inform all Member States when a significant food safety problem arises anywhere in the Community, overriding any tendency towards secrecy.
There is also a need for the Commission to enhance its activities and capabilities to assist Member States in specific areas of co-ordination and collaboration. For example as already noted, there are important tasks to be undertaken in the provision of statistical and information services and in the standardisation of scientific approaches and procedures. The White Paper does not adequately address how the Agency will do this in ways that will significantly improve on existing systems, such as Enternet (An international surveillance network for the enteric infections funded by the European Commission). The marked difference in the quality and quantity of scientific information about the microbiological aspects of food safety that is gathered in different member states is well known. It will not be rectified by networking. If it is to add value and achieve scientific credibility, the Authority will need to take a lead role in standard setting, in facilitating the necessary technical developments in member states, and in the development and provision of Europe-wide communication systems. The provision of adequate resources will be key here.
With regard to the proposed new legal framework for animal feed, it is intended that animal products and by-products can be used for animal feedingstuffs only if they are certified as fit for use as human food. While accepting this intention in principle, we would draw attention to the difficulties of certifying those animal foods which comprise materials outwith the range of human digestibility in terms of fitness for use as human food. Moreover, in practice this is unworkable in terms of free-range production. Consideration would need to be given as to what happens if pigs eat excreta or hens scratch on middens and eat materials from heaps of animal excreta - as they do. Would this mean that eggs from free-range farmyard hens and meat from the same would be banned from sale?
What relationship should the Authority have with other Community institutions and with national authorities, including the new UK Food Standards Agency?
To avoid duplication of effort the Authority should work with existing national authorities on an equal footing. It will be very important that it should avoid conflict and instead cultivate an open attitude of collaboration and knowledge-pooling. As presently conceived, the EFA could substantially replicate the roles and activities of the established food authorities in Member States. This could add additional tiers of administration and bureaucracy, and it might also weaken the responsibility and authority of the Member State provisions.
To what extent are the Commission's proposals likely to achieve the stated aims of establishing, through the Authority, a "scientific point of reference for the whole Union", which will "contribute to a high level of consumer health protection, and ...help to restore and maintain consumer confidence"?
One of the main features of the White Paper is its in-built assumption that a greater, more ‘centralised’ and more bureaucratic EU regulation will provide improved food safety and quality and better consumer assurance. There is no evidence to support this view, and indeed there are substantial contrary arguments. The weight of evidence suggests that food quality, food safety and consumer assurance are safeguarded most successfully under regulatory systems that create an understanding of risks and an acceptance of responsibilities to minimise them. This involves the active involvement of the producers and manufacturers of foods, those involved in food retailing and catering, and the consumers who are responsible for the storage and preparation of food in the home. This concept of ‘personal responsibility and duty’ is inherent in the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points approach to food safety and underlies the concept of ‘due diligence’ that is incorporated in the UK food law. The issues of food safety and quality, and of gaining increased consumer assurance, would thus be best addressed by striving to understand the true nature of the problems and by focusing resources and effort to address them. This approach would run contrary to that outlined in the White Paper since all the evidence is that food safety and quality, and particularly consumer assurance, is best dealt with at as ‘local’ a level as possible. At that level, the 'lay' public can best be involved with discussion and decision-making, and helping set agendas and procedures thus reflecting their own national values and judgements, which may not be in accord with any wider 'European' view. In other words, those sections of the White Paper which refer to public 'participation' in the Authority’s 'processes', as 'interactive dialogue', must be rethought and clarified.
The White Paper’s concept that consumers will respond positively to the Commission acting as their food safety and quality watchdog is difficult to accept given the recent problems over UK beef exports. Its widely disseminated 'findings' could backfire if, in hindsight, they were seen to be incorrect - thus lessening the public's confidence in technical expertise. Overall, trying to strengthen and enhance the central role and authority of 'science', and of technical experts, in decision-making is unwise. It runs the risk (through backfiring) of merely increasing the public's current tendency to discount such an input to decisions which the public sees as crucially affecting their lives. The aim should be that the public will be so involved, locally, that they come to see scientific findings as a trusty and reliable input to such decisions, which they must realistically address - but not as the remotely-agreed main determinant of the outcome.
In what respects will the Commission's "farm to table" legislative action plan contribute most to these aims?
The action plan appears to be a well-meaning but grandiose and thereby expensive scheme which could interfere adversely with regulation at national level which is probably more appropriate and in which there is likely to be a higher level of consumer confidence. Blanket legislation on the scale envisaged invariably generates anomalies which could adversely affect areas of food production and processing.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: The Food Standards Agency: Draft Legislation (March 1999); The Scientific Advisory System – Genetically Modified Foods Inquiry (March 1999) and The OECD Edinburgh Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods (February 2000). Copies of the above publications and further copies of this response are available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands