Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report


The Committee's general approach

13. The purpose of this Report is threefold: to inform the House of some key issues raised by the White Paper; to respond to the Commission's invitation for comments on the proposed European Food Authority (EFA); and to offer opinions which the UK Government may wish to take into account in framing its own response to the Commission. In the interests of brevity, and bearing in mind that the bulk of the evidence taken by the Sub-Committee has been from organisations who will themselves be responding direct to the Commission, the Report does not seek to summarise their evidence in detail or to cover ground where evidence has ranged outside the main areas of inquiry (paragraph 7 above).

14. This part of the Report has therefore been structured as follows: under each of a series of headings (representing the Committee's view of the most important questions raised by the inquiry), to describe the issue, to indicate the range of opinion, and to present (in bold type) the Committee's response.

Principles of EU food safety policy

15. Chapters 1 and 2 of the White Paper contain a general statement of the objectives of EU food safety policy and the guiding principles behind them. Besides those elements already summarised in paragraph 2 above, particular importance is attached to risk assessment, based on the best possible science, to application of the precautionary principle[10] in risk management, and to the involvement of consumers and other "stakeholders" in all aspects of food policy and control, with full transparency of information and decision-making.

16. Although the question was not specifically posed in inviting evidence, it was apparent that witnesses had little quarrel with the Commission's policy aims. We are at one with most of our witnesses, including the Government (in its Explanatory Memorandum of 2 February 2000), in welcoming this aspect of the White Paper, which we note is consistent with the general approach to food safety in the United Kingdom which lies behind the setting up of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA). Where witnesses' opinions diverge is on the measures needed to give effect to these principles at the Community level.

The need for action at Community level


17. Chapter 3 of the White Paper discusses the essential elements of food safety policy and concludes that improvements are needed in the areas of monitoring and surveillance, the rapid alert system, food safety research, scientific co­operation, analytical support and the provision of scientific advice.

Box 1

EU food policy: problems to be tackled

A fragmented approach to food policy

An inability to anticipate new developments and practices in the food chain

A lack of clear objectives for food policy

Conflicting priorities of industry and trade promotion and consumer protection to the detriment of public health

Inadequate consumer involvement reflected in the emphasis of EU food policies

A reactive rather than proactive approach

An inability to respond swiftly to food safety problems as highlighted by the dioxins scandal

A lack of coordination across the EU's food-related policies and also between Member States when a food safety problem emerges

Problems with enforcement

Inefficient communication and inadequate information about food-related risks

A lack of confidence in EU scientific advice

A lack of openness and transparency over decision-making

A failure to adequately represent—and defend—consumer interests at the World Trade Organisation

A lack of clarity over the EU's role in nutrition policy

Source: Memorandum by the Consumers' Association (p 92)

18. The Consumers' Association (CA) provided a comprehensive list of problems which needed to be tackled in relation to EU food policy (see box). Witnesses generally emphasised the need for greater co­ordination and consistency across the European Union (in the case of industry, the "level playing field" argument) in the interests of better implementation and enforcement of food safety legislation.[11] The British Retail Consortium (BRC) suggested there were useful lessons to be learned at the EU level from the UK Cabinet Office's "Better Regulation" initiative (p 43). The British Medical Association (BMA) and the Campden and Chorleywood Food Research Association (CCFRA) made the point that consumers needed to be confident that safety standards were comparable not only in the Single European Market but also in the global market, where the Commission negotiated within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on behalf of the EU Member States. A global, not merely European, strategy was required on several major scientific issues, e.g. genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotic resistance, animal welfare and growth-promoting hormones (pp 89, 90).


19. As noted in paragraph 5, the White Paper contains a detailed programme—an "Action Plan on Food Safety"—comprising 84 separate proposals, mainly regulatory but also including proposals of a policy nature, viz. the European Food Authority (Chapter 4) and an initiative on nutrition (see paragraph 106). These are itemised in the Annex to the White Paper. The detailed case for the regulatory measures in the Action Plan is set out in Chapters 5 and 6 of the White Paper. These were outside the scope of the inquiry; we did however, in the context of the Authority, pose a general question on how effectively the Commission's "farm to table" legislative programme was likely to contribute to the Authority's objectives.

20. The general response to our question was that the plan was too ambitious and lacking in clearly stated priorities, apart from the initial group of 18 "priority measures". The Royal Society of Edinburgh described it as "well meaning but grandiose" (p 116). Others (e.g. British Hospitality Association) complained about over-regulation. Dr Richard North, adviser to the EDD[12] Group in the European Parliament, saw in the programme an unjustified extension of Commission activity into the arena of direct enforcement; he felt in any case it was premature for the Commission to be embarking on a new round of law-making before the BSE inquiry (chaired by Lord Phillips) had reported (p 99). The BRC commented that whilst many of the measures listed in the Annex reflected a move by the Commission towards a more "horizontal, goal-based approach" to regulation, it was concerned that in practice detailed "vertical" measures would persist, particularly in the field of food labelling (p 44).

21. The UK Co­operative Movement ("the Co­op"), however, gave a positive welcome to the White Paper: European food policy had developed piecemeal over forty years, with responsibilities dispersed between at least four directorates-general in the Commission. The three components of the package—the EFA, the reorganisation of food policy into the new DG SANCO and the legislative programme—should lead to improved food safety, from which consumer confidence would follow. "The Commission should be driven by the imperatives of consumer safety, not of consumer confidence." It was disappointed, however, that certain dossiers—in particular those with labelling components—had been left with other DGs, notably agriculture, and considered that a major omission from the White Paper was a comprehensive review of food labelling, which had been dropped from the original Green Paper (Q 179, p 50). CA, whilst welcoming the action plan and the White Paper generally, stressed the need for clear guidance on the priorities of EU food policy; it hoped that this would be addressed in the proposed General Food Law Directive (p 95).

22. During Sub­Committee D's informal discussion with Members of the European Parliament, Dr Caroline Jackson MEP, Chairman of the Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy, considered the timetable to be "wildly unrealistic". Mr Phillip Whitehead MEP described the list of proposals as "an omnium-gatherum to divert attention from the lack of focus in the main [EFA] proposal". Commissioner Byrne, when asked by the Sub­Committee about the realism of the timetable and priorities (other than the first 18 items) within the Action Plan, said that work had already started on many of the items on the list. He agreed the timetable was ambitious; the Commission hoped to adhere to it as best it could. Much would depend on the European Parliament's speed of reaction. He was not happy with some aspects of the legislative process and would like to see more use made of comitology.[13] He had discussed these issues at a recent session with the Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy.[14]


23. We agree that improvements are needed in order to achieve a more effective and coherent food policy at the Community level. We are however not convinced that the White Paper reflects a sufficiently strategic overview. Apart from the proposals for a European Food Authority, we do not propose at this stage to comment in detail on the Commission's 84­point action plan, but we may wish to look at specific legislative proposals when they come forward. We share the view of witnesses that the programme looks, at first sight, over-ambitious, despite the optimism expressed by the Commissioner, and with no clear indication of priorities. In its present form it is little more than a shopping list (or in other respects a mere catalogue of actions which are going ahead anyway), and somewhat arbitrary in its coverage—labelling, for instance, being a striking omission. The first 18 items are described as "priority measures", but their importance relative to each other is not made explicit.

The case for a European Food Authority

24. If the need for action at Community level is accepted, there are various ways of achieving it. Part of the Commission's solution is to create the proposed new Community authority, on the lines discussed in Chapter 4 of the White Paper. It envisages that the EFA's responsibilities would comprise scientific advice, the gathering and analysis of information, and the communication of risk (White Paper, paragraph 44).


25. The concept of a new authority, as opposed to improving existing systems within the Commission, received a mixed reception from witnesses, ranging from outright hostility to strong support; but even the more enthusiastic supporters criticised the White Paper for providing insufficient detail to allow a proper evaluation of the proposal. Professor Philip James, Consumers in Europe Group (CEG) and Professor Tim Lang (Thames Valley University), among others, emphasised that setting up the Authority was a political imperative on Commission President Prodi's agenda and was a response to the crisis triggered by the BSE affair and the more recent scandal of dioxin contamination of animal feed in Belgium. In fact President Santer had already accepted the need for action, acknowledging that the crisis was in part the result of the undue priority which EU policy gave to supporting farming and food production. Professor Lang felt that the White Paper lacked a proper analysis of shortcomings which the EFA was supposed to correct, and was disappointed that the White Paper contained no acknowledgment of the need to alter policy (Q 106, p 34). Mr Jim Murray told the Sub­Committee that BEUC had never actually asked for the Authority, but recognised that recent crises had created external pressures which the Bureau would in principle support.[15] The problem of uneven implementation and enforcement of food safety law across the 15 existing EU Member States was seen by most witnesses as a particular challenge for the EFA; it was thought likely to be heightened by enlargement of the Union.


26. Many witnesses (for example the BRC, the Dairy Industry Federation and the Provision Trade Federation, pp 42, 96, 113) expressed concern at the potential for increased bureaucracy and second-guessing. Dr North considered the case for the EFA to be "weak and muddled", seeing no need to replicate World Health Organisation (WHO) systems of surveillance or to insert another layer on top of surveillance and risk assessment systems at local and Member State levels; the Commission should encourage harmonisation of systems but there was no need to create a separate authority to do that (pp 97-8). The National Office of Animal Health found the White Paper "frightening" and felt that the Commission was "seizing the opportunity presented by the alleged food safety crisis to extend its own power and influence" (pp 108-9). The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health commented: "the body proposed appears at first reading to be little more than an expensive upgrade to the existing scientific committees' structure".[16]

27. Other witnesses (e.g. the British Hospitality Association and Ms Joanna Wheatley, beef farmer) considered that it was premature to be thinking of creating new structures before lessons had been learnt from the BSE inquiry and before the recent restructuring of responsibilities for food safety within the Commission (see paragraph 6) had had a chance to settle down (pp 87, 123). The BRC had no strong objections to the proposed Authority, but believed that its impact would be much less fundamental than those internal changes and that there was even a risk that it might undermine their effect (QQ 156-8, p 42). The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) went further in arguing that resolution of the problems identified (cf. paragraph 18) did not necessarily have to be achieved through the formation of a European Authority (p 73): Mr John Wood suggested it would be better "to do a candid and frank analysis of the deficiencies of the European regulations and associated procedures, and then decide what the answer should be, rather than clutching at the (EFA) the panacea for all of our current ills" (Q 244). The British Hospitality Association commented that it was "naïve to assume that yet another organisation in an increasingly crowded field will resolve problems which are essentially those of human failure to comply with existing legislation" (p 87).

28. The Royal Society of Edinburgh, like BRC, felt that a new Authority was justified only if it could be seen to complement and add value to the work of national agencies and EU bodies, and to strengthen the provision of good and independent scientific advice across Europe; otherwise the Society was in favour of maximum devolution of responsibility for control and assurance systems. It feared that any added value from creating an authority might be small in relation to high bureaucratic costs (p 115).


29. On the positive side, the Local Authorities' Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards and the Local Government Association (LACOTS/LGA), whilst considering that the White Paper presumed rather than argued the case for the EFA, saw it as an opportunity for bringing about improvements in information gathering, analysis and communication, as well as for harmonising implementation and enforcement of food laws though better monitoring (pp 104-5). This view was shared by the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales (NFU) (p 55). The BMA welcomed the EFA initiative (as it had done the creation of the UK Food Standards Agency); it wished to monitor its development carefully but saw it playing a valuable role in fostering consensus among government scientific advisers. It added that the EFA could help the EU to meet the commitment under Article 152 of the EC Treaty to ensure that all Community policies were consistent with a high level of human health protection (pp 89)—an issue which, according to CEG, the Commission had failed to address seriously in either the Agenda 2000 changes to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) or the present White Paper (p 62).

30. The Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS) and the leading biotechnology companies Novartis and Monsanto supported the proposed Authority as a means of bringing consistency and coherence to food policy, legislation and enforcement in the EU, provided that proper regard was had to subsidiarity (pp 101, 107, 110). Novartis in particular saw great benefit in putting scientific risk assessment under one roof with monitoring and surveillance (p 111). The Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene and Society of Public Health saw a strong case for the Authority in the light of deficiencies in national systems of control which recent food safety crises had served to highlight; its tasks should include such things as examining disparities between Member States in the penalties imposed for breaches of national laws which implemented EC directives and regulations (p 114). This view was echoed by Scientists for Labour, who saw in the EFA, like the UK Agency, an important vehicle for restoring public confidence in the safety and nutritional value of food. With national food agencies in place or planned in only 8 out of the 15 EU Member States,[17] "an authoritative transnational body is obviously required in Europe to enforce and police standards (and) to ensure co­ordination of food safety policy between Member States" (p 117). The Soil Association hoped the EFA would make a major contribution to agricultural policy; its support for the Authority, however, was dependent inter alia on its focusing on the fundamental causes of food safety problems, on regulatory aspects of all agricultural inputs to the food chain, and on alternative farming practices (pp 118-9).

31. The general view of the UK Government, as expressed in an Explanatory Memorandum by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF)[18], is that "consumer concerns and the complexity of current arrangements demand urgent action to develop a coherent EU policy for the foodstuffs sector based firmly on the fundamental importance of consumer protection". The Government therefore welcomes the White Paper and shares the objectives outlined in it. On the proposed EFA, the rationale behind it is said to be similar to that which led to the setting up of the UK Food Standards Agency, and the Commission's statement of the guiding principles which will underpin the EFA's operations—scientific excellence, independence and transparency—is fully consistent with the Government's own approach to food safety. The Memorandum adds that "any new arrangements must be rational and capable of working effectively with Member States' own national agencies and authorities in the interests of consumers".

32. Mr Geoffrey Podger, then Head of the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group (JFSSG) of the Department of Health and MAFF and subsequently Chief Executive of the Food Standards Agency, and his colleague Mr Grant Meekings saw particular value in having a European institution to which countries like the UK could contribute scientific knowledge and expertise and which in turn would make that knowledge and expertise available to other Member States who were less well-endowed in that area. They also made the point that there was a clear national interest in having improved systems of enforcement across the Community. The White Paper, however, was not clear on how the Authority's risk assessment responsibilities would relate to the risk management and enforcement functions which the Commission would retain (QQ 34, 43, 46).


33. Chapter 8 of the White Paper states that the key principle for imported foodstuffs and animal feed is that they must meet health requirements at least equivalent to those set by the Community for its own production. The EU is the world's largest importer and exporter of food products; food safety therefore cannot be seen solely as a matter of internal policy. The chapter gives a brief account of current EC activity in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international organisations.

34. CEG and Professor James, among others, felt that clarification was needed on the nature of the relationship which the EFA would be expected to develop with these international organisations, in particular the Codex Alimentarius (see box) (QQ 2, 31; p 65). There is a reference in Chapter 8 to work on the accession of the EC to the Codex, but nothing is said in the White Paper about a possible role for the EFA in this context.

Box 2

Codex Alimentarius (Note by Professor Philip James)

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established by FAO and WHO following an FAO regional conference for Europe in 1960 and the agreement by WHO in 1963 that its mandate for looking at health standards warranted the development of a Commission. The two bodies adopted the statutes and rules of procedure for the Commission, which is managed by a secretariat from both UN bodies responsible for the implementation of the joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme. The concept of a Commission arose because in the 1950s Austria, with its long established Codex Alimentarius Austriacus, had originally proposed a European body. The Economic Commission for Europe, in conjunction with the OECD, WHO/FAO and the short-lived Council of the Codex Alimentarius Europaeus created the international Commission with its associated subsidiary bodies. These bodies currently consist of Codex committees (which prepare draft standards) and regional co­ordinating committees, including a European committee (one of five).

The UK is responsible for two commodity committees, on fats and oils and on sugars; of the remaining 14 such committees, Denmark is the only other EU Member State to host one—on processed meats and poultry products. EU Member States play a comparatively greater role in hosting general subject committees: out of nine "horizontal" committees, France hosts a committee on general principles; Germany the committee on nutrition and foods for special dietary uses, while the Netherlands currently hosts two committees—on food additives and contaminants and on pesticide residues.

The Codex Commission meets only every two years and decides questions of member state representation; in other respects its Executive Committee is able to take decisions. NGOs representing consumer and industrial interests have been involved for many years and are able to contribute to both committee and Commission discussions, but do not have a vote. Under the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), Codex is specified as the arbiter of scientific analyses of risk and can determine whether barriers to trade based on health concerns are justified. Although in recent trade disputes the EU has acted as a 15-member group to propose or object to specific measures, the White Paper does not indicate how the role of the EFA will relate to Codex.

35. Mr Podger and Mr Meekings explained how under the Single European Market any food imported into the EU from a third country could be freely traded within the Union, with or without further processing, provided that it had been passed as safe by the original receiving Member State (or had otherwise cleared the controls in force in that country). Member States were therefore under an obligation not only to their own citizens but also to the Community as a whole to ensure that food imports complied with agreed EU safety standards. To the extent that there was variability between Member States, not so much in the standards themselves but rather in the quality of inspection and monitoring of food imports, Mr Podger agreed that problems could arise, which enlargement of the Union might make worse unless all Member States, including the new ones, could be brought up to the same level of competence. There was therefore an important task for the EFA in helping to raise standards of inspection and enforcement across the Union (QQ 35-45). Mr Ian Gardiner (NFU) echoed these comments, stressing the importance of the Codex as a vehicle for arriving at common international standards (Q 201).

36. Anecdotal evidence, from the Specialist Adviser and others, suggests a potentially worrying problem: for example, there have been cases of contaminated poultry imported from South-East Asia. Mr Ben Gill (NFU President) referred to a "massive influx" of food imports from outside the EU (Q 199). Mr Podger, however, when asked for information about cases of unsafe third country imports which had been detected in the UK, was able to produce only two examples (p 18-9). Mr John Longworth (BRC and Tesco) said he was not particularly concerned about the problem, because domestic UK food safety legislation provided adequate safeguards, even where retailers did not carry out the same degree of auditing and testing that the large supermarket chains did (QQ 165-6).


37. The case for the European Food Authority stands or falls on how far it can genuinely add value and fill gaps—particularly as an authoritative source of the best scientific advice in the field—in the development and management of EU food policy over and above what can be achieved by internal reforms in the Commission and other measures proposed in the Food Safety White Paper. We recognise the strength of the political driving force behind the proposal, and agree with the Chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy that the Authority has the potential to be "a very useful means of making sure that we have safe food".[19]

38. Above all, it is in the international forum that the EFA is needed. According to our specialist adviser, there is no apparent major input by the EU into the Codex Alimentarius—an area of the utmost significance now for world trade. With the EU being the world's biggest importer and exporter of food, we are surprised to find only a perfunctory mention of the Codex in the White Paper, with no indication of the EFA's potential role in this context. The EU needs to formulate a coherent policy for ensuring that the EFA, in the interests of enhancing consumer confidence, can play a major role in the Codex so that the EFA's analyses have an appropriate influence in Codex analyses. We consider there is an urgent need to review and clarify the EFA's role in this area. This should include considering whether it might be appropriate for the Authority to take over the host functions of EU Member States in relation to particular Codex committees. Alternatively, the existing arrangement of Member States taking the lead in particular areas may have benefits, at least in terms of networking, but it would seem that the current distribution of responsibilities is based more on history than on an objective analysis of where the principal expertise lies: this analysis needs to be carried out.

39. With the increasing globalisation of the food trade, the Authority will have a significant role in helping to promote uniform safety standards, consistently enforced across the EU, for food imports from third countries, where lower standards may apply. The Chief Executive of the UK Food Standards Agency was able to cite only two recent incidents where contaminated food from outside the EU had reached the UK after having been accepted by another Member State, but acknowledged that only the more serious cases would have been notified to the Agency and its precursors. Whilst we do not question the vigilance of the UK authorities, including the new Agency, we find the situation worrying for what it seems to indicate on the state of monitoring and record-keeping, not to mention variable standards of enforcement, across the EU. Clearly there is a major task here for the EFA in securing improvements in current systems.

40. Through its ability to back high standards and procedures by authoritative scientific risk assessment, the Authority will provide essential support to the Commission when it negotiates within the World Trade Organisation and other international bodies on behalf of the EU Member States. The case for the Authority is further reinforced by the probability of continuing asymmetry between existing Member States in their national arrangements for implementing and enforcing EU food safety law—only eight out of the fifteen have set up, or have firm plans to set up, agencies such as the UK Food Standards Agency, and the enlargement of the Union is likely to be an added complication. A pan-European Authority would be of vital benefit to the candidate states as they bring their standards, practices and laws into line with those of the existing Member States.

10   See the Commission's Communication on the Precautionary Principle, COM(2000)1, 2 February 2000. Back

11   See, for example, the evidence from the Provision Trade Federation and Monsanto and the joint evidence from the Local Authorities' Co­ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards and the Local Government Association (LACOTS/LGA) (pp 113, 107, 104). The Food and Drink Federation provided a helpful tabulation of perceived problems and suggested remedial actions (pp 72-3). Back

12   Europe of Diversities and Democracies. Back

13   The established Community shorthand term for the system of procedures involving committees, made up of representatives from Member States and chaired by Commission, whereby the Member States can exercise some control over implementing powers delegated to the Commission by the Council. (See the 3rd Report, Session 1998-99, of the House of Lords European Communities Committee, Delegation of Powers to the Commission: Reforming Comitology, 2 February 1999, HL Paper 23.) Commissioner Byrne would evidently prefer as much as possible of the detailed arrangements for the EFA to be dealt with through delegated powers (i.e. the equivalent of subordinate legislation), for which provision would be made in the main legal instrument. He hopes that this might speed the progress of the main instrument through the European Parliament. Back

14   Comments made at meeting with Sub­Committee D. Back

15   Informal discussion with Sub­Committee D. Back

16   The CIEH did not submit evidence specially prepared for the inquiry, but provided a copy of its submission to the Commission, covering wider aspects of the White Paper as well as the EFA proposal. This has not been printed. Back

17   At the time of the inquiry, national agencies already operated in Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden; the UK Food Standards Agency was on the point of commencing operations; and Greece was said to have plans for setting up an agency (Professor Lang, Q 106). Back

18   Document 5761/00, 2 February 2000 Back

19   See p 102. Back

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