Select Committee on European Scrutiny Third Report


GENERAL PRINCIPLES AND REQUIREMENTS OF FOOD LAW



(a)
(21886)
14174/00
COM(00) 716


Draft Council Regulation laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Authority, and laying down procedures in matters of food.

(b)
(22675)
11445/01
COM(01) 475


Amended Commission proposal for a draft Council Regulation laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Authority, and laying down procedures in matters of food.


Legal base: Articles 37, 95, 133 and 152(4)(b) EC; co-decision (Articles 95 and 152), consultation (Article 37); qualified majority voting
Document originated: (b) 7 August 2001
Forwarded to the Council: (b) 9 August 2001
Deposited in Parliament: (b) 1 October 2001
Department: Health
Basis of consideration: Undated EM
Previous Committee Report: (a) HC 28-viii (2000-01), paragraph 1 (14 March 2001)
Discussed in Council: (a) 28 June 2001
Committee's assessment: Legally and politically important
Committee's decision: (a) Debated on the Floor of the House on 25 October 2001
(b) Cleared

Background

5.1  In the last few years, the Commission has issued two major documents dealing with the general principles governing food law in the Community. First, a Green Paper in April 1997[7] sought to launch a public debate by examining how the existing legislation was meeting the needs of producers and consumers. This document was followed in January 2000 by a White Paper,[8] which made it clear that the Commission regards providing the Community with the highest possible standards of food safety as a key policy priority, and that, whilst it believed the present system had generally functioned well, there needed to be a comprehensive and integrated approach to food safety.

5.2  The White Paper also addressed a number of more specific issues, including the guiding principles of food safety; the need for comprehensive and effective food safety monitoring and surveillance systems; the adequacy of the present arrangements for obtaining quality scientific advice; the need for an extensive legislative programme to provide a more coherent framework; and the need for improvements in such areas as internal and external controls and the provision of information to consumers. However, its central feature was the proposal for the establishment of an independent European Food Authority (EFA), which would give effect to the general principles and requirements of food law, whilst maintaining a clear separation of responsibilities between it and other Community bodies for risk assessment and risk management.

5.3  In November 2000, the Commission put forward a document which addressed the establishment of a European Food Authority and the need for agreed common principles underlying Community food legislation as envisaged in the White Paper, covering such areas as risk analysis, the precautionary principle, traceability, the respective responsibilities of the food industry and Member States' authorities, and the Community's international obligations. It also proposed certain procedural changes; introduced a mediation procedure in cases of dispute between Member States; and set up a Commission Standing Committee on Food Safety and Animal Health. The detailed points were described at some length in paragraphs 1.5 — 1.37 of our predecessors' Report of 14 March 2001.

5.4  In her Explanatory Memorandum of 21 January 2001, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health (Ms Gisela Stuart) said that the Government was considering whether the legal base proposed provided an adequate basis for establishing the Authority, but that it had still to examine whether the proposal was consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, given the increase envisaged in the Commission's competence and in the harmonisation of national measures.

5.5  So far as the policy implications were concerned, the Minister said that the Government broadly supported the proposal to establish the EFA, albeit with reservations about its remit, and in particular the lack of clarity about its involvement in risk management. She added that there were also questions over how the Authority would function in certain areas, its management and accountability, the accessibility and transparency of its procedures, and the involvement of consumers. However, subject to further discussion of these issues, she welcomed the proposal to set up a central body which could play an active role in the development of a more coherent and modern approach to food safety issues at Community level.

5.6  On the general food law provisions and other elements of the proposal, the Minister said that these raised complex issues, which could considerably extend Community and Commission competence, and have "significant" implications for UK food law. She also believed that the interface with other Community legislation needed to be considered, and she suggested that there would therefore need to be detailed consideration and the fullest consultation. In particular, she said that the general food law provisions might be much better suited to a Directive, which would allow Member States a degree of flexibility over implementation, though she noted that the Commission was keen to maintain all the proposed measures within one Regulation. She also made the point that many of the issues in this part of the proposal had no direct bearing on the setting up of the EFA, and would inevitably delay that process if retained as part of a single package.

5.7  The Minister attached to her Explanatory Memorandum a partial Regulatory Impact Assessment, but, as she herself pointed out, it was difficult to quantify the benefits of the proposal in that it related in the main to general principles, and any information on its costs would emerge only as part of the consultation process referred to above. She therefore undertook to provide a further Regulatory Impact Assessment once more information was available.

5.8  In their Report of 14 March 2001, our predecessors noted that this was a major document, which touched upon an important area of public policy, both in general terms and as regards the establishment of a European Food Authority. They also noted that, although the Government broadly supported what was proposed, it nevertheless had a number of reservations relating to the legal base and functions of the Authority, the subsidiarity implications, the impact on UK food law generally of the proposed extension of Community and Commission competence in this area, and whether it would be preferable for any new Community measures to be incorporated in a Directive rather than a Regulation. In addition, pending completion of the Government's consultation exercise, there remained considerable uncertainties over the potential costs and benefits involved

5.9  Our predecessors said that they expected the Government to address these points further in an Explanatory Memorandum, but that they believed that the issues raised by the document were in any event of sufficient importance to warrant a debate on the Floor of the House, rather than in European Standing Committee. In the event, that debate took place on 25 October 2001.[9]

The current document

5.10  As the present Minister (Hazel Blears) has pointed out in her recent undated Explanatory Memorandum, the Commission put forward on 7 August 2001 an amended proposal which took into account those of the amendments to the original proposal tabled by the European Parliament at its first reading on 12 June 2001 which it was prepared to accept, together with the changes made by the Council in reaching its common position on 28 June.

5.11  According to the Minister, the general food law provisions of the proposal are largely unchanged, except for a re-ordering of the text and a number of clarifications. Member States will, however, be required to adapt existing food law principles and procedures to comply with the relevant articles as soon as possible, and by 1 January 2007 at the latest.

5.12  As regards the European Food Authority, she says that its mission has been amended to focus on food and feed safety, and that its role in relation to animal health and welfare and plant health issues not linked to food and feed safety will be limited to scientific opinions, amounting to no more than 5% of its workload. There are also strengthened references to transparency and openness, with provision being made for observers to be invited to meetings of the Authority's scientific committee and panels, as well as the possibility of meetings in public. In addition, the proposed Advisory Forum will have a more precise role in providing a functional link between the Authority and Member States, and hence in establishing an effective networking system which will pool knowledge and help to identify emerging issues before they become a serious problem. Other changes include provisions requiring an effective interface between the Authority and other Community institutions, and the ability of Member States and the European Parliament, as well as the Commission, to request scientific opinions of the Authority.

5.13  The Commission has, however, retained its original proposal that the Management Board of the Authority should comprise four members each from the Council, European Parliament and the Commission, and four representing consumers and the industry, to be designated by the Commission. This contrasts with the Council's common position, which states that the members should be appointed to secure the highest standards of competence and a broad range of expertise.

5.14  The other main changes proposed by the Commission relate to the chapter dealing with the rapid alert system, crisis management and emergencies. It has been made clear that the Commission will retain responsibility for the management of the rapid alert system, although the proposed Authority will be able to provide scientific advice; and emergency procedures have been extended to cover animal feed. The Commission has retained 1 January 2004 as the date by which Member States should comply with the general food law requirements (the Council favours 1 January 2005), whilst the proposed Authority is to commence its operation on 1 January 2002, even though its structures and scientific panels will not be in place until later. Also, its location has still be decided, in the face of formal bids from Helsinki, Barcelona, Parma and Lille.

5.15  The Minister goes on to discuss the extent to which the changes in the latest text meet the concerns expressed earlier by her predecessor. She says that the common position adopted by the Council includes significant improvements, which the UK was instrumental in achieving, thus meeting many of the earlier concerns on such questions as subsidiarity, the inclusion of general food law provisions in the same Regulation, and the impact on UK food law generally (where she says that the approach now adopted reflects more closely that in the UK's own Food Safety Act 1990). The UK was also able to introduce greater openness into the operations of the proposed Authority, and, although other Member States, the European Parliament and the Commission were firmly against the Authority becoming involved in risk management, the UK did achieve recognition of the need for it to have an effective interface with other Community institutions.

5.16  There is also a clearer hierarchy for the Authority's mission and tasks, with the focus on food safety, parity of access for Member States, the European Parliament and the Commission to request scientific opinions, and a stronger and better defined role for Member States' involvement in the Advisory Forum. However, the Minister says that there was no support for a Directive rather than a Regulation, and that, despite support for the idea from the European Parliament, the Commission remains unwilling to accept open competition for appointments to the Authority's Management Board.

5.17  On the legal base, the Minister says that the Government had reservations about whether the legal base proposed, which omitted reference to Article 308 of the Treaty, was adequate for establishing the Authority as a separate legal entity operating in the internal market field, but no other Member State shared this concern. The UK subsequently withdrew its reservation in view of advice from the Council Legal Service that a reference to Article 308 was unnecessary.

5.18  Finally, the Minister says that an updated Regulatory Impact Assessment is being prepared, and will be forwarded shortly.

5.19  The Council's common position was submitted to the European Parliament on 19-20 September, and its second reading is provisionally scheduled for 12 December. The Minister says that the Belgian Presidency is hopeful that the co-decision process can be completed in time to allow formal adoption of the Regulation by the end of the year, allowing the Authority to be established early next year.

Conclusion

5.20  We are grateful to the Minister for this further information, and, although we were unable to consider it at our meeting on 17 October 2001, we understand that it was available to Members prior to the recent debate on the Floor of the House. It seems clear from what the Minister has said that, although there are a number of points on which the UK would have preferred further changes to the initial Commission proposal (document (a)), most of the major concerns voiced earlier have been met. In view of this, and of the opportunity which the recent debate afforded the House to consider the amendments set out in the amended proposal (document (b)), we are clearing it. We will, however, wish to consider the Regulatory Impact Assessment promised by the Minister when it becomes available.


7   (18083) 8150/97; see HC 155-ii (1997-98), paragraph 1 (22 July 1997). Back

8   (20875) 5761/00; see HC 23-x (1999-2000), paragraph 2 (1 March 2000). Back

9   Official Report, 25 October 2001, cols. 499-518. Back


 
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