Select Committee on European Scrutiny Seventh Report


COM(01) 493

Draft Council Directive amending Council Directive 1999/29/EC on undesirable substances and products in animal nutrition.

COM(01) 495

Draft Council Regulation amending Commission Regulation (EC) No. 466/2001 setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs.

Legal base: (a) Article 152 EC; qualified majority voting
(b) Article 95 EC; qualified majority voting
Document originated: 28 August 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 29 August 2001
Deposited in Parliament: (a) and (b) 27 September 2001
Department: Health
Basis of consideration: EMs of 15 October and Minister's letter of 20 November 2001
Previous Committee Report: None
To be discussed in Council: (a) 20 November 2001
(b) 26 November 2001
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


23.1  According to the Commission, the distribution of dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs[70] throughout the environment causes background contamination of the soil and grazed plants which finds its way into animal feed and hence into the food chain, where it constitutes a risk to human health. Indeed, the Commission says that over 90% of human exposure occurs through food, and that in turn about 90% of that intake arises from food of animal origin. It therefore considers that a comprehensive strategy is needed to address the problem. It says that its White Paper on Food Safety has already identified the need to define maximum levels for dioxins, and that it intends to complement this by tackling the problem at source by limiting the emission of dioxins into the environment.

23.2  The Commission will be producing a further Communication on this last aim, but, in the meantime, it has sought to focus on the immediate question of dioxin levels in the food chain, where it envisages three pillars - the establishment of maximum levels at "strict but feasible levels", taking into account the current background contamination; the establishment of action levels, triggering a proactive approach to the identification of sources of contamination (and ways to eliminate them); and the establishment of target levels, to be achieved in order to bring the exposure of the large majority of the European population below the Tolerable Weekly Intake set by the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF). The last two of these are being dealt with separately, whilst the first, covering the levels of dioxins present in animal feed and human food respectively, are addressed in the current two documents.

The current proposals

23.3  In its introduction to these proposals, the Commission says that the scientific basis for setting maximum dioxin levels has been addressed as a matter of urgency. The SCF has established a Tolerable Weekly Intake of 14 picograms per kilogram of bodyweight, in line with guidelines established by the joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives. It has however concluded that the average human intake in the European countries is between 1.2 and 3.0 picograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day, and that a "considerable proportion" of the population is therefore exceeding what is considered to be toxologically tolerable. Whilst the SCF recognises that the Tolerable Weekly Intake contains a safety factor, it is concerned that the protection this provides could become eroded. An assessment has also been carried out by the Scientific Committee for Animal Nutrition (SCAN), which has identified fish meal and oil as the most heavily contaminated feed materials, followed by animal fat. It has therefore recommended that, pending measures to reduce the presence and release of dioxin contamination, emphasis should be placed on reducing the impact of the most contaminated feed materials on overall diet contamination.

23.4  Against this background, the first of these proposals would set maximum levels of dioxin contamination in various animal feeds, whilst the second would set such levels for a range of foodstuffs, including meat and meat products, milk and milk products, eggs, and oils and fats.

The Government's view

23.5  In her two Explanatory Memoranda of 15 October 2001, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health at the Department of Health (Ms Hazel Blears) points out that Council Directive 1999/29/EC[71] at present includes only one maximum permitted level (MPL) for dioxins, relating to citrus fruit following the discovery of elevated levels in pulp pellets imported from Brazil. The equivalent measures setting maximum levels for contaminants in food have so far been devoted to such areas as nitrates, aflatoxins, and heavy metals.

23.6  She says that the current proposals to introduce maximum dioxin levels for a range of animal feedingstuffs and foods follow a major incident in Belgium in 1999 where animal fats for use in animal feeds were contaminated with transformer oil. She also points out that, although the Commission has competence to set regulatory limits in both areas, it was not able to secure the necessary support from the Member States when the proposals were put to the relevant Standing Committees in July 2001. As a result of the procedures laid down, the proposals have both been referred to the Council of Ministers, which must act before the end of November.

23.7  On the merits of the Commission's proposals, the Minister says that the UK supports action to reduce consumer exposure to dioxins in food and feed, but doubts whether what is proposed will achieve this or is proportionate to the risk. In particular, she is concerned that the Commission has not carried out risk assessments to examine the impact of the proposals, and that the limits suggested may restrict the availability some feeds and food without having a significant effect on the dietary exposure of consumers. She also stresses that the UK remains strongly of the view that source-directed measures are the best way of addressing dioxin exposure, but that the Commission has not yet provided an indication of the steps it will propose to reduce emissions in the environment.

23.8  Other concerns identified by the Minister are:

    —that, because data on dioxin-like PCBs across the Community is limited, the proposal cover only dioxins, whereas UK surveys show that the former — which were principally involved in the 1999 incident in Belgium — contribute at least the same toxic load as dioxins in most foods, and should thus be included in control measures, including those on feed: there is also a need for more data on dioxins in a number of materials used in animal feed to inform the setting of MPLs;

    —that no criteria have yet been agreed for Community methods of analysis, which are the key to effective enforcement, and that there are at present very few UK laboratories capable of performing the current validated tests (which also cost around £1000 per sample).

23.9  The Minister says that, in further discussions, the UK will continue to emphasize the importance of reducing dietary exposure to dioxins and PCBs, but will stress the importance of carrying out risk assessments. She also believes that the Commission must make clear its strategy to reduce the release of dioxins in the environment, and to coordinate the monitoring and surveillance of both dioxins and PCBs. She says that a preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessment is being prepared, but that the proposals are likely to have "significant" cost implications for both the feed and food industries and for enforcement authorities, in that analysis for dioxins is expensive, particularly when seeking to identify levels close to the limits of detection.

Minister's letter of 20 November 2001

23.10  We have since received a letter of 20 November 2001 from the Minister providing an update on the progress of these proposals. As regards the one on feed, she says that there was support for an increase in the proposed MPL for pet food, and (more importantly from the UK point of view) for a deferral in the implementation date from 1 January 2002 to 1 July 2002, which will give the industry some time to adjust. She adds that Member States which had previously voted against the proposal in the Standing Committee have now indicated that they can accept it, and that it is thus likely to be adopted by qualified majority at the Agriculture Council on 20 November. On the proposal to set dioxin limits in food, the Minister says that the UK will also be seeking an extension of the date on which it comes into force, and that it now seems likely that it will be adopted at the Internal Market Council on 26 November.

23.11  The Minister has also enclosed with her letter preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessments. However, these make it clear that little is available at present in the way of estimates of actual costs, although areas of concern have been identified. In the case of proposal (a), these include the availability of certain feed materials, particularly fishmeal, and, in the case of proposal (b), the scope for milk producers selling direct to the public to meet the limits envisaged. The Minister says that the Assessments will be sent to industry and other contacts, who will be asked to provide as much detail as they can on potential costs and other impacts before any measure is implemented in UK law.


23.12  Whilst we welcome in principle any measures which will reduce the level of dioxins in the food chain, it is clear that the Government has a number of reservations about these two proposals, and that information about their relative costs and benefits is sketchy both at Community level and within the UK. However, we note that the proposals are ones which essentially fall within the Commission's competence, and that they have been referred to the Council only because they failed to attract the necessary measure of support in the relevant Standing Committees. We also note that, under the rules of procedure which apply, the Council has to take decisions on them by the end of this month. In the circumstances, we are clearing them, but we think it right to draw to the attention of the House both the basis for the proposals and the Government's concerns about them.

70   Polychlorinated biphenyls. Back

71   OJ No. L 115, 4.5.99, p.32. Back

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