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European Food Law

5.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): I beg to move,

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important measure on the Floor of the House. The Government attach particular importance to the establishment of a European food authority as an aid to re-establishing consumer confidence in the food supply and to making the European Union regulatory process more transparent.

Proposals were published by the European Commission in November last year and agreement to a common position was reached in the Council in the summer. Several issues that are covered in the proposal have already been debated in the European Scrutiny Committee and in the House of Lords last year during deliberations on the Commission's White Paper on food safety. This proposal cleared scrutiny by the European Union Committee in the Lords in March. All views expressed have been taken into account in the negotiations that were given priority by the Swedish presidency in the first half of the year.

The European Parliament is considering the Council's common position text. It is likely that the co-decision process will be completed in time to allow formal adoption of the regulation by the end of the year. That would enable the European food authority to be established by early 2002, in line with European Council conclusions.

The proposal can be broken down into three distinct parts: general food law, establishing a European food authority and dealing with emergencies and procedural food safety issues in the Union. I shall speak briefly about each part.

The food law element will establish an overarching approach to considering food safety issues at European level by defining general principles, which legislators must take into account when developing European Union and national food law. It also includes requirements for those who produce our food. Some are new general requirements, such as traceability, although specific, detailed traceability requirements already exist in some sectors. Others enhance existing obligations, such as procedures on withdrawal and recall.

In the United Kingdom, we operate basic safeguards primarily under the Food Safety Act 1990. The Food Standards Agency administers the controls; consumer protection lies at its heart. We are trying to strengthen that concept in Europe and when setting international food standards more generally.

Although most food law is already subject to harmonised measures throughout the Union, the proposal now better reflects our basic safeguards. That will ensure that the principles of consumer protection and prohibition on placing unsafe food on the market will apply to food legislation throughout the Union.

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We initially expressed preference for a directive, especially given our anxieties about the potential for delaying the establishment of the European food authority. The original proposal was unclear about scope and intent, but the text has been significantly improved in the past six months. In the light of rapid progress, we can support the legislative form of a regulation, which will be directly applicable. Given the similarities, some changes will be required to our primary legislation. However, our high standards on food and public health will not be compromised.

Although our Food Standards Agency has wide statutory powers, combining all the inherent elements of the risk analysis process—assessment, management and communication—the European food authority will differ because it will be limited to scientific assessment and its communication. The legislation and control elements—risk management—will remain with the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. We do not want to change that, but as we stated in the Government response last year, it is essential to recognise the need for effective communication between all those involved in risk analysis. They include the food authority, the Commission and member states. We have achieved recognition of the need for such coherence in the common position text.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am trying to work out how one can split risk assessment and communication from risk management. How will that affect, for example, genetically modified organisms? The criteria overlap on that.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We aim to try to ensure that the role of the European food authority is to draw together the best scientific advice, expertise and evidence. Views based on that evidence should be communicated to those who will have to make decisions about risk management. The processes are different. We want to ensure that those responsible for the decisions make them in the light of the best scientific evidence available in the European Union.

We believed that it was especially important that, when advising on risk assessment, the food authority should be able to identify options or make recommendations for action to risk managers. They should give a public explanation for any deviation from the authority's recommendations. That would mean not that the food authority would become involved in determining risk management solutions, but that the assessors, with the scientific data at their fingertips, should be able to identify practical solutions. That was our view, but others were not able to support it. That is a missed opportunity, but we note that the proposal still provides for the authority to express and publish its conclusions on matters within its remit.

I stress that the proposed authority will not be directly responsible for any enforcement or control aspects of legislation. That remains the responsibility of member states under the food and feed control directives, although there are proposals in the pipeline, as the Commission's legislative plan in the White Paper on food safety suggests, to introduce a fully harmonised approach on the matter.

The authority's remit is also seemingly broad, encompassing animal health and welfare and plant health. Some of those issues could have an impact on food safety,

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but it is extremely important to ensure that secondary issues do not divert the authority from its principal role of safeguarding food and feed safety. The National Farmers Union told us forcefully that the authority should concentrate on its core remit.

We have considered carefully the arguments and counter-arguments in regard to whether the authority should be a one-stop shop for all scientific advice, including advice on issues that have a less direct impact on food safety. That has obvious implications for resources, and for the authority's ability to deal with issues directly affecting food safety and the safety of consumers. We are satisfied that the proposed regulation now strikes the right balance in terms of the focus of the authority.

It is vital that this opportunity to establish a truly innovative approach to the way in which food safety issues are tackled at European level should not be squandered by the establishment of a food authority that is so overburdened that it may not act in a proactive manner, or whose structure dictates that it will not be able to make its voice heard in a truly independent way. We pushed hard for maximum openness and transparency, as well as independence from political influence, for the management board.

The Commission has stated its preference for its original proposal, which involves four members from the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission, but we now see reference to members' being appointed in such a way as to secure the highest possible levels of competence and a broad range of relevant expertise.

Our European partners have been impressed by the UK's policy of debating important food safety issues in public. We achieved provision in the proposed regulation for the possibility of public meetings of the scientific panels, and the possibility of observers on the panels themselves. Similar points have been made to us effectively by the Consumers Association, which is keen to ensure that the public are involved. We now have more potential for consumer involvement: the original proposal contained no more than a passing reference to contacts with consumers as contained in the original proposal.

The latest text now better defines the forum's role, ensuring that the authority can tap into the wealth of knowledge residing in member states. That will help to avoid duplication of effort within the EU, and will serve as a mechanism for exchange of information on potential risks and pooling of knowledge.

The final part of the proposal relates to procedural matters, such as the establishment of a crisis unit, and a mediation procedure, with Commission involvement, in the event of differences of opinion between member states. Those initiatives are particularly welcome in the area of crisis management. Consideration will need to be given to a fast-track procedure, with the authority's active involvement, enabling important decisions to be taken as quickly as possible on the basis of the latest science.

As I have said, the European Parliament is currently considering the Council's common position text with a view to amendments. The process is still in its early stages. The main issues seem to relate to a greater role in the appointments of the executive director and management board, and a provision that would prevent food business operators from preventing or discouraging anyone from co-operating with the competent authorities

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when there was a risk to food—a whistleblowing provision. On the latter, we are sympathetic to the principle but are considering the scope and effect. This issue is essentially covered in domestic legislation for employees under the Public Information Disclosure Act 1998.

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