Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report



75. The White Paper (paragraph 19) stresses the importance of liaison with the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). In 1997 our sister Committee on Science and Technology said of this body that the concept of a large corporate research laboratory, with ring-fenced funding, was "outmoded" and that the JRC's mission had been "allowed to drift beyond recall". The Committee recommended that "the JRC's directly funded core operations should be confined to the few matters where a distinctly EU view of the questions involved is essential", and that its work should be open to competition, peer review and independent assessment.[32]

76. The White Paper is not very specific on how liaison with the JRC is to be handled. CEG was concerned about the compatibility of the research criteria of the JRC in food policy and the research and analysis needs of the EFA (p 65). Professor James told the Committee that there was a need for "a far more effective integrating and interacting process" between the JRC, the scientific committees and the Commission's Research Directorate-General (Q 22). Mr Meekings (JFSSG) said it was important to draw on the resources of research and expertise from the whole Community, not just those within the Commission institutions at the centre. Since the Commission had an interest in steering work towards the JRC in order to justify its viability, Member States' laboratories with possibly greater expertise could be denied the opportunity to tender for research contracts. He felt there was "a very definite awkwardness", and lack of clarity, in the White Paper's references to the JRC and its supposedly central role (QQ 49-54). Professor Baker said: "We do not see (the JRC) as the highest class that one would wish to see in the research arena. I think it would be very regrettable if in some ways (the Centre) gained an inside track..." (Q 84).

77. Commissioner Byrne assured members of the Sub-Committee that the JRC had competence in the food area. Mr Coleman explained that a separate Institute for Health and Consumer Protection had been set up at the JRC's headquarters in Ispra, headed by a new director and with (it was later learned) over 200 members of staff.[33] When asked whether the EFA would draw on advice from the JRC because it represented "best science" or simply because it was there, Mr Byrne conceded that it was not necessarily the best source of advice, but it was a resource that would be available to the Authority. He confirmed that the EFA would be able to turn to experts anywhere.[34]


78. We deprecate the implied assumption of the White Paper that in-house science is necessarily the best. In the case of the JRC, we believe that the concerns expressed some three years ago by the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee remain valid today; we are therefore disturbed by the Commission's apparent bias towards the JRC. If only in terms of its public image, we do not see how the EFA can possibly achieve the authoritative status envisaged so long as there is scope for suspicion that the JRC is being given an inside track, unexposed to peer review, in providing advice on matters of food safety.


79. There is an extensive literature, both practical and theoretical, on the assessment of risks and hazards and on the process of making decisions in conditions of uncertainty.[35] Although various expressions containing the word "risk" are in use, the terminology of the White Paper (paragraphs 30­34) draws a distinction between three activities—"risk assessment", "risk management" and "risk communication"—under the umbrella of "risk analysis". Risk assessment will be one of the principal functions of the EFA. The White Paper, however, argues that risk management should be seen as part of the regulatory process and therefore should stay with the Commission (paragraph 33). Witnesses' opinions on this varied. For example, the Royal Society of Edinburgh supported the proposed separation of responsibility (p 115), as did the Co­op (Q 175) and the NFU (Q 190). The National Office of Animal Health, on the other hand, took the opposite view, arguing that having responsibility for risk management tended to breed a more realistic attitude to risk assessment when the two functions were combined (p 109).

80. Both the BRC and the FDF said it was essential that any new authority should find ways of engaging the private sector's technical and practical expertise in the process of risk assessment and in supporting the Commission's objectives generally (pp 43, 74). Professor Lang said that the "institutionalisation" of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication was "a central flaw in the model of the EFA" (Q 106). CA, too, had reservations about how the functional separation of risk assessment and risk management would work in practice; they felt that it was difficult to draw a clear dividing line between risk assessment and risk management, and that risk communication should be a shared responsibility, with two-way communication between assessors and managers (p 93). The NFU said that any responsibilities that the EFA had for risk assessment and communication must form a "seamless activity" with equivalent activity in the Commission and the Food and Veterinary Office[36]; the aim should be to put consumers in the position where they could take decisions themselves, rather than having decisions taken for them (Q 192). The BRC (alluding to its members' daily experience of both assessing and managing risk) similarly agreed that risk communication had to be closely associated with both assessment and management; Ms Rachael Kenningham felt that there was a danger that the EFA—because it lacked responsibility for managing the consequences of its actions—might make pronouncements which caused unnecessary public alarm (Q 159).

81. CA pointed out that scientists often had to make value judgments in the absence of clear scientific evidence on which to base their advice; this was why transparency was important. If the EFA were too rigidly confined to risk assessment, there was a danger that it could be sidelined, as the main decision-making would remain with SANCO and other DGs. On the other hand, it seemed likely that the Authority would become involved in risk management decisions without this being openly acknowledged. As the James et al Report had put it, "the three components [of risk analysis] have to be fundamentally interactive". CA therefore considered that there was a need for the EFA's role in risk management to be made explicit (p 93).


82. Chapter 7 of the White Paper discusses the question of risk communication, which the Commission argues should not be a passive transmission of information but should involve interactive dialogue with all "stakeholders", including consumers. Various proposals for improving the present rules on food labelling and advertising are also discussed; these did not form part of the inquiry.

83. LACOTS/LGA felt that the Commission should clarify what it meant by the loss of consumer confidence which its proposals sought to remedy and which was likely to vary from state to state. Like CEG, they were sceptical whether the EFA could effectively engage directly with consumers, rather than communicating through national structures (pp 65, 106). Professor Lang suggested that what was needed was an in-depth study of consumers' concerns across Europe (Q 120). The Royal Society of Edinburgh thought there was a built-in assumption in the White Paper that more centralised regulation would necessarily provide better food safety and consumer assurance: these they considered were better dealt with at the local level, reflecting national values and judgements. References in the White Paper to public participation in the EFA's processes as "interactive dialogue" needed to be re-thought and clarified (p 116).

84. Ms Longfield (Sustain) said that, on the basis of the proposals in the White Paper, the opportunities for consumer organisations to influence the affairs of the EFA seemed poor. She suggested there could be a role for BEUC in ensuring that there was public interest representation on the various advisory committees, and would like to see use made of "innovative things like citizens' juries, consensus conferences, stakeholder dialogues, opinion polling (and) focus groups". She conceded that some of these activities might more appropriately be conducted at national or local level, but that European-level initiatives would be needed from time to time (QQ 136-7).

85. As the White Paper puts it, "Greater transparency at all levels of Food Safety policy is the golden thread throughout the whole White Paper...." (paragraph 117). This sentiment was endorsed by witnesses generally, and it was agreed that the principle applied throughout the risk assessment, management and communication process. Professor James commented that Commission officials "literally do not understand the process of transparency", and that "the key to winning consumer confidence is not simply to provide them with an endless battery of information" (QQ 17, 28). The Co­op said that transparency had "more to do with intelligibility than availability" (p 49). CEG said that the principles of openness, transparency, public scrutiny and accountability (paragraphs 96 and 97 of the White Paper) could be achieved effectively only if the EFA's policy formulation directly involved partnership with consumer representatives, citing a passage from the Communication on the Precautionary Principle: "All interested parties should be involved to the fullest extent possible in the study of various risk options that may be envisaged once the results of the scientific evaluation and/or risk assessment are available and (that) the procedure be as transparent as possible" (p 63). BEUC said there was an urgent need for consumer involvement in a reformed Rapid Alert system, irrespective of whether responsibility for the system became a function of the EFA.[37]

86. FDF said that risk communication was a very important part of establishing consumer confidence in the food supply and "must constitute much more than simply the provision of information in an understandable format. It must ensure that the information is placed in a suitable and interpretative context, so that it does not have the reverse effect of that desired" (p 75). Dr Mike Gasson (BBSRC, IFR) said it was the areas of low risk that presented the most difficulty, where different committees could come up with different conclusions on the same scientific information (Q 75). Dr R North suggested that food scares were sociological phenomena which could not be addressed through risk management and communication: "Enhanced risk communication may even magnify the scare dynamic, so that the establishment of the EFA (might) actually intensify the perceived lack of confidence in the food supply" (p 99). CEG emphasised the need for minority scientific opinions to be explored thoroughly, not least to maintain consumer confidence; this was done only late in the day during the BSE crisis (Q 209, p 64). Professor James has drawn attention to the USFDA's practice of publishing preliminary opinions—an example of openness which in his experience is alien to Commission culture. Mr Podger endorsed the importance of getting on the public record points of disagreement, as part of the process of explaining why a committee or authority had arrived at its final view (Q 47).

87. The Co­op considered that the EFA should be very firmly focused on risk assessment; it drew attention to the four components of risk assessment as expounded in Annex III of the Communication on the Precautionary Principle: hazard identification, hazard characterisation, appraisal of exposure and risk characterisation. Mrs Green did not agree that the EFA should have the major role (compared with the Commission) in risk communication envisaged by paragraph 51 of the White Paper: she saw in the White Paper a blurring of the lines of responsibility, which she felt was not in the best interests of the consumer. Her preference would be to see much of the risk communication being done at national level. Risk assessment was frequently a case of balancing probabilities; communication of risks to the public was "a very clever professional skill" (QQ 175, 181; p 49). As Mr Podger put it, "risk communication is not the exclusive province of scientists" (Q 48), although Mr Gill (NFU) made a plea for more scientists to develop skills as communicators (Q 197). Professor Baker, referring to the "intersection of scientific data and political and public concerns", said that "the advice we give is strongly scientifically based, but we inevitably always come up against the question which our scientists cannot answer in a definitive way" (Q 71).

88. CEG, whilst being in favour of the separation of risk assessment and risk management, was concerned about a lack of clarity in the division of responsibility between the EFA and the Commission, particularly in relation to risk communication. They agreed with the Co­op that risk communication required professional skills, and argued that it should happen at both stages—risk assessment and risk management (p 65). Mr Podger agreed that "risk communication has to draw on both the risk assessment and the risk management....Simply to put risk assessments into the public domain without any attempt to give...advice as to what we believe should be unwise and simply leads to more public concern." Alluding to the James et al Report (paragraph 81), he felt the White Paper failed to make clear how the separate roles of the EFA and the Commission were to be linked together (Q 46).


89. Sound and transparent risk assessment will be a crucial function of the EFA, underpinning risk management decisions. We accept the basic proposition that for the present there should be a clear division of responsibility, with risk assessment going to the EFA and risk management staying with the Commission, along with regulation and enforcement. There should, however, be close two-way interaction across the divide, and both the Authority and the Commission should be governed by the principles of openness, transparency of processes, full dialogue with stakeholders and public accountability.

90. Risk communication we see as a shared responsibility, particularly in view of the EFA's proposed responsibility for the Rapid Alert System. Although this function is not spelled out in the White Paper, it must in our view be closely allied to risk management, since the judgement whether or not to sound the alarm will be at least as much a political as a scientific one. In this respect the Commission's distinction between risk assessment and risk management becomes blurred. Risk communication goes further than simply issuing factual statements describing what is being done or putting documents on the internet. The public wants to know the reasons why action is being taken as a result of risk assessment; it also needs information and advice as a basis for questioning governments.

91. In our view, the interests of the European consumer demand that the EFA should have freedom to transmit to the public, the Commission and Member States the essence of its scientific analyses and how far the Commission, in its management responses, has reflected or failed to act on the analyses set out by the EFA. It should also offer opinions and guidance to the Commission on practical problems arising in the Community. The Commission's responsibility must then be to specify what response it is making to the analysis of risk provided by the EFA and how it has interpreted in legal terms any proposals that emerge from the Authority's advice.

92. The White Paper generally lacks precision on the respective roles of the EFA and the Commission, and it may be that this should be allowed to evolve pragmatically. Although we agree with some of our witnesses that risk communication may be more effectively handled at Member State and local levels, we would not wish to see artificial constraints placed on the EFA's freedom to communicate risk to whatever audience and on whatever issues (within its remit) it sees fit. We share the view that ignoring or suppressing minority scientific opinions can have the effect of undermining consumer confidence; panic can usually be avoided by being open about the range of opinion.

93. We also agree with several witnesses that the Commission's Communication on the Precautionary Principle contains some valuable further elucidation of the White Paper's treatment of risk. If used correctly, the Principle can be a highly appropriate yardstick for risk management decisions. Its advantages, however, can be diluted—to the point of being perceived as disguised protectionism—if it has the effect of stopping any activity simply because it has risk attached to it. Having said that, we recognise that the Communication raises issues which go wider than the EFA proposals.[38] We may therefore wish to return to them in another context and on a future occasion.


94. Besides its necessarily close relationship with the Commission, the EFA's relationship with Member States' national agencies such as the UK Food Standards Agency is of crucial importance if the Authority is to succeed in adding value to Community food safety policy, rather than leading to duplication of effort and increased bureaucracy, as many witnesses feared (paragraphs 26-28). The White Paper is aspirational rather than precise on these relationships.

95. The general consensus among witnesses was that if there was to be a European Authority, there must be effective liaison and communication between the Authority and national agencies, to ensure better co­ordination and prioritisation of research and consistent surveillance systems. The NFU felt that the recent or planned establishment of food standards agencies in eight out of the 15 Member States was a complicating factor, which could lead to concerns that the creation of a supra-national agency would actually lead to a fall in standards to the lowest common denominator (p 55). National agencies should be free to concentrate on areas of national concern, having regard to cultural differences (Provision Trade Federation, p 113). The BMA said the relationship should be based on "support and co­operation", without the EFA having powers to override the decisions of national bodies where they applied higher standards than EU legislation required (p 89). LACOTS/LGA suggested that good co­operation was all the more important if, as proposed, risk assessment and communication were separated from risk management (p 106). CA commented that as staff of national agencies helped their governments to formulate the positions to take in EU negotiations, and in many instances would attend the meetings in Brussels, they clearly had a great deal of expertise and experience from which the EFA could learn (p 94).

96. Professor James said the UK had a great opportunity to influence, through the Food Standards Agency, the way in which the EFA evolved. Among the issues to be explored would be how far the EFA would be able to use the FSA, or other successful national agencies such as the Irish Food Safety Authority, as reference points for certain topics on the strength of their particular expertise, or whether it would be more conducive to consensus to ask a national agency to take the lead in collaboration with experts from other Member States (Q 12). Mr Podger suggested that having "good and coherent links with a strong body with similar objectives to ourselves" (i.e. the EFA) was essential if the FSA was to do a proper job in the UK (Q 34).

97. The question arose during the inquiry (e.g. in connection with Commissioner Byrne's remark about the EFA being the "single voice" on food safety for the EU[39]) whether the EFA should have the power to overrule the opinions of national agencies and scientific experts. We note that, in reply to a recent parliamentary question on this specific point, the Government has stated:

    "No such formal role has been proposed. The relationship between the proposed European Authority and agencies in member states is not clearly defined in the Commission's communication. However, we expect any recommendations from the proposed Authority to be based on full consultation and careful analysis of the best available scientific information. The United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency will wish to participate closely in the work of the Authority."[40]


98. A great deal of thought and planning at national level has gone into the recently created agencies such as those in France and the United Kingdom, and others which have been operating longer (such as the Irish Food Safety Authority and the Swedish National Food Administration) are valuable sources of scientific expertise and practical experience. It is important that the EFA does not waste time and resources on reinventing the wheel. It must reinforce, not undermine, national agencies and systems. It has a dual task of learning from others' experience and of providing an outreach service to Member States who are less advanced in developing national food safety systems; this will be particularly true of the candidate states for EU membership.

99. The last point has potentially far-reaching implications, both for trade and consumers' interests. There is a dilemma: on the one hand, as we have emphasised, the EFA must be complementary to, and not duplicate, Member States' own systems; considerations of subsidiarity and efficiency suggest that the new Authority should be a facilitator rather than playing the dominant role. On the other hand, the EFA will be useless unless it becomes in some sense a first among equals in an expanded European Union. This does not mean, however, that (as we have commented in paragraph 73) the EFA should have powers to override expert opinion in Member States in cases of disagreement. The Authority must harness and engage scientific expertise from across the Union—indeed from around the world—and has to win its position of pre-eminence through consensus-building.

100. A national agency, such as the UK FSA, should interact on a regular, even daily, basis with officials in the EFA, so that the agency can be both fully aware of and indeed influence EFA policy and expertise. The suggestion (e.g. from BBSRC)[41] that the FSA should predominate in UK affairs may be correct in the context of enforcement, but in terms of scientific analyses it makes little sense—because it presupposes the existence of bodies of equivalent calibre bodies not only in other Member States but in the expanded Union. In our view it will be necessary to confront the need for the EFA not only to set new standards of scientific analysis but at the same time to nurture national agencies in those states that do not have bodies equivalent to the UK FSA.

32   The JRC has been described as the Commission's "corporate research laboratory" and has the status of a Directorate-General. As well as its headquarters units, it comprises some seven research institutes located in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. The JRC developed from the need for expertise in the nuclear field in the 1960s and still displays a bias towards that area of research. For a discussion of the JRC and its effectiveness, see the 2nd Report, Session 1996-97, of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, EU Framework Programme for European Research and Technological Development, HL Paper 49. Back

33   A letter to the Clerk from the Director of the JRC Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP), received after the end of the inquiry, explained that the IHCP had been formed, within the JRC, "by the clustering and the reorganisation of activities spread through various JRC Institutes under a common umbrella to provide for a better use of the scientific and technological competencies in the areas of health and consumer protection (and) to develop a frame where (it) is possible to broaden and focus such activities". The Mission Statement of IHCP reads: "The Mission of IHCP is to support EU policies for health and consumer protection. The Institute carries out research to improve the understanding of the hazards, exposure and risks posed by food contaminants, drugs, chemical products, services and systems, and to develop, validate and apply advanced methods and strategies of high scientific quality." Additional information is available on Back

34   Comments made at meeting with Sub­Committee D. Back

35   For a convenient discussion, see the 21st Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Setting Environmental Standards, Cm 4053, The Stationery Office, October 1998. Back

36   See paragraph 101. Back

37   Informal discussion with Sub­Committee D. Back

38   For instance, its interaction with the concepts of sustainable development and best practicable environmental option (BPEO). Back

39   See paragraph 69. Back

40   House of Commons Official Report, 2 May 2000, col 63W. Back

41   Paragraph 68 Back

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