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European Standing Committee C Debates

White Paper on Food Safety

European Standing Committee C

Wednesday 12 April 2000

[Mr. Johnathan Sayeed in the Chair]

White Paper on Food Safety

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Gisela Stuart): I welcome the opportunity to debate this important document, which was published by the Commission earlier this year. It follows on from the Commission's Green Paper on general principles of food law in the Community, which was published in April 1997.

The White Paper has been presented as a major initiative designed to promote, restore and maintain the confidence of European Union consumers in the safety of food in the EU. It sets out a major programme of legislative reform and the establishment of a new European Food Authority. It seeks to obtain views on the proposed EFA by the end of April, which explains the timing of this debate. Naturally, the Government will respond to the Commission and we are encouraging all UK interested parties to do likewise.

In formulating our views, we have met key organisations representing consumers, retailers, manufacturers and producers and discussed various issues with them. Many of those organisations are also making representations to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, which is holding its own inquiry into the White Paper. As the report states, even if the White Paper were confined solely to the envisaged legislative programme, it would be of considerable significance. A number of the proposals are ones on which the UK has been pressing and we will be keen to see more detail on them when they are produced by the Commission.

The EFA is, however, the main item for consideration today. Starting from the principle that we regard the protection of consumer health as paramount and agree that it is necessary to take steps to re-establish public confidence following recent EU food scares, we welcome the proposal to set up a new independent EU body.

There is little concrete detail in the White Paper, and the Commission wishes to hear the ideas and views of all interested parties. Particular issues have already been discussed in general terms within the Agriculture and Internal Market Councils. The presidency and the Commission have been keen to assess member states' initial reactions. There is unanimous support for the establishment of the EFA, but as with everything, when all 15 member states are gathered together, everyone is coming from slightly different angles. We all agree, however, that it must start from the premise of a rationalisation of existing resources available to the Commission and provide a coherent, streamlined and effective approach to the consideration of food safety issues.

The UK has an opportunity, therefore, to set out what we would like to see. The EFA must, of course, meet all the proposed criteria of independence, openness and scientific excellence. In doing so, it must command the respect of national Governments and EU consumers. Although it has received a cautious welcome, it has already been criticised by press and consumer groups as toothless and an inadequate response to current consumer concerns. That is because the Commission proposes a body that can undertake only scientific risk assessment and not propose solutions. We must give careful thought to that problem.

The food industry has also expressed concerns about the need for such an agency and questioned whether the rationalisation of existing Commission services might be a better starting point. We acknowledge that view, but we understand the political concerns that drove President Romano Prodi to make the current proposals and we are prepared to give him our support in this radical new look at food safety.

There is certainly a need to review food safety policy and the handling of food safety issues. The establishment of the EFA sits well with the principle of pulling together responsibility for food safety into one body, as we have done with the Food Standards Agency. However, it may need to do rather more than the Commission proposes in the White Paper if it is to have any effective role in reassuring consumers and providing the coherence at EU level sought by member states.

We must address a number of crucial issues, one of which is funding, as the Scrutiny Committee mentioned, but I shall return to that later. Major concerns also include risk analysis, the EFA's scope and accountability and its relationship with national agencies. Effective risk analysis is the key to sound food safety decisions. The White Paper recognises that there are three components of risk analysis, including risk assessment and risk management. The Commission proposes to confine the role of the EFA to risk assessment and communication. The Commission will continue to be responisble for risk management-the identification of regulatory options and formulation of legislative proposals-and presumably will have a separate risk communication role of its own.

Some member states have suggested that the EFA should be able to make recommendations to risk managers. Other member states prefer the more limited approach. We welcome some of the ideas, especially if they mirror what we have set in place for the Food Standards Agency. However, we must be careful that equivalent food standards authorities in other member states are risk-only and science-only bodies. The relationships might not be straightforward. It is important that the system is transparent and, above all, gains consumer confidence.

Consumers are concerned that a food authority that is reponsible for providing only scientific advice will have inadequate influence on legislation. The food industry is concerned that the EFA might be excessively precautionary. We agree that responsibility for enacting legislation should not be changed. It should remain with the Council and the European Parliament, which are to act on proposals from the Commission. But the identification of the regulatory options needs to be carried out in the closest possible collaboration with those who carry out scientific risk assessment. The approach accords with the all-inclusive remit that the Government have given to the Food Standards Agency.

There are arguments about the scope of the EFA. The Commission will need authoritative scientific advice on nutrition-related issues. We have no problem with providing that. There is potential for the exchange of ideas. However, we have reservations about the EFA being actively involved in some areas, such as the promotion of healthy eating, which is better and more appropriately carried out at a national and sometimes local level. The EFA could extend its powers by broadening its responsibility to take in labelling, which has direct safety implications.

We also need to look more carefully at the funding of the authority. The Commission has proposed that it should have a budget of only 100 million ecu, which is equivalent to 62.5 million. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for the Food Standards Agency is about 145 million. The proposed funding will have implications for the scope of the new agency's role.

The proposals do not make the relationship with national agencies clear. There should be a strategy for dealing with disagreement. A consultative committee comprising the heads of national agencies might be a useful mechanism to seek consensus.

The White Paper considers the issue of research. Given the budget constraints, it is unlikely that the new body will have much scope for commissioning research. A structured network to draw together existing research would be welcome. The issue of accountability is not clear. The White Paper refers to an independent body that is supported by the Commission, with a high level of accountability to European institutions and citizens, but with a legal existence and personality separate from current EU institutions. We and other interested parties will want more detail on that.

The Food Standards Agency has an open method of working. Its agendas are published and some of its meetings are held in public. The way in which input from individual citizens will be represented is not clear. We similarly feel that enforcement and control should remain the responsibility of member states.

In conclusion, the proposal for a new European Food Authority raises issues. As I said, the Government response will be submitted to the Commission by the end of April. We welcome the current proposals-they are the right step forward-but we must consult with other bodies in the UK. Whatever body results, we must ensure that the consumer is at the heart of the regulations and that it commands the confidence of consumers and member states.

Several hon. Members rose-

The Chairman: Order. We have until 11.30 am for questions to the Minister. I remind members of the Committee that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity to ask several questions.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden): The latter part of the Under-Secretary's statement is important and will set the tone for the questions. She hinted that the Government would seek a process to bring about a resolution should a national food standards agency-there are eight among European Union member states-find itself in dispute with the new food authority. What confidence has the Under-Secretary in a consensual consultative approach to upholding food standards if the UK were to find itself with higher food standards than elsewhere in Europe?

Ms Stuart: It is correct to say that eight of the 15 member states have an independent body. The United Kingdom has tremendous scope to be one of the leading members as our body is more developed than any of the others. Sweden, Finland and France have bodies based on science only. Ireland's authority has wider remit. Portugal, Greece and Belgium are in the process of establishing an organisation. While the aim of many of the bodies is roughly the same, where they are coming from is different. Reaching agreement will be slightly difficult and the White Paper is not clear.

One suggestion worth considering is for a commission that would meet regularly and would have accountability. However, as with all European Union regulations, a clear line must be agreed. That is why the current lack of coherence in terms of risk management and risk communication is a potential difficulty. We need agreement on a coherent line. We want to take consultation further because we are not satisfied that the current proposals are sufficiently robust.

 
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