Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report


16 May 2000

By the Select Committee appointed to consider European Union documents and other matters relating to the European Union.



5761/00   White Paper on Food Safety in the European Union (COM(99)719)


The White Paper

1. The Commission's White Paper (12 January 2000) is the sequel to the Green Paper on the general principles of food law in the European Union (30 April 1997, COM(97)176). The Green Paper invited comments on the principles which should underpin a programme of rationalisation and review of food law in the Community.

2. The objective of the White Paper—which is a discussion paper, not a legislative proposal—is to ensure that Community institutions and legislation bring about a high standard of food safety for European consumers. The proposals are based on the following guiding principles:

3. Included in the White Paper is an outline proposal for a European Food Authority (EFA), with responsibility for monitoring, information gathering, risk assessment, provision of scientific advice, dissemination of scientific advice and information, and operation of the Rapid Alert System[1]. Responsibility for proposing legislation (and for enforcement at Community level) would remain with the Commission.

4. The Commission specifically invited comments on the proposed new Authority by the end of April 2000. In the light of the comments received, it intends to present a legislative proposal in September 2000. The legal instrument for setting up the EFA (which will probably take the form of a Decision by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament) will be subject to the "Co-decision" legislative procedure, under which full agreement between the Council and the Parliament is required before a measure can be passed. The Commission's current target for adoption of the measure is December 2001 and it is envisaged that the Authority might start operating in 2002.[2]

5. The White Paper also sets out a detailed programme of food safety and standards work for the next three years. In addition to the EFA proposal (which is assigned the highest priority), 83 separate measures are listed, covering food safety, nutrition, labelling and relations with third countries. Of these, 17 are described as "priority measures" and include:

  • reforming and extending the Rapid Alert System[3]
  • establishing a comprehensive safeguard measure[4] covering the whole food chain, including animal feed
  • a General Food Law Directive establishing food safety as the primary objective of EU food law
  • establishing a coherent framework of controls on animal feed
  • reviewing the operation of rules covering novel foods, including genetically modified ingredients and products.

6. The proposals of the White Paper, taken as a whole, are presented against the background of a radical reorganisation of responsibilities for food safety within the Commission, including the creation of a new and expanded Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General (DG), now known as "SANCO"[5], in place of the former DG XXIV (White Paper, paragraph 22). These changes took place in the late autumn of 1997 as part of the previous Santer Commission's response to the BSE affair, and included the transfer to DG XXIV of responsibility for eight sectoral scientific advisory committees[6] which had previously reported to DG III (Industry); at the same time a new Scientific Steering Committee was set up. In 1999 the then Director-General asked a group of experts (Professor Philip James, Professor Fritz Kemper and Professor Gérard Pascal) to produce a report on future arrangements for the provision of scientific advice in the food safety and public health field (referred to in our Report as "the James et al Report").[7]

7. Since the Prodi Commission took office, further organisational changes have occurred, and were still in progress during this inquiry. Not all of the recommendations in the James et al Report are being adopted, although the White Paper says that the report "will be taken into account" in developing the proposals.[8] The establishment of the EFA would require a further round of changes, including the transfer to the EFA of responsibility for the scientific committees which cover the Authority's field of interest.

The Inquiry

8. This Report is the product of an inquiry by Sub­Committee D (Environment, Agriculture, Public Health and Consumer Protection), the membership of which is listed in Appendix 1. Professor Philip James, former Director of the Rowett Research Institute, Aberdeen, acted as specialist adviser.

9. Having reviewed the White Paper as a whole, the Sub-Committee decided that it would be right to concentrate on the EFA proposal, for which a tight consultative deadline had been set, and to consider how far the proposed Authority would contribute to the general objectives of the White Paper. Although the earlier Green Paper was not subjected to detailed scrutiny by this House, the White Paper notes (in paragraph 7) that the present proposals reflect extensive consultation and discussion about improvements to EU food legislation in the light of the Green Paper; the inquiry therefore did not seek to re-open issues covered by the previous consultation.

10. Evidence was taken from the persons and organisations listed in Appendix 2, who were invited to focus their comments in the first instance on the following questions:

     (i)How strong is the case for a European Food Authority?
     (ii)What is the added value of action at Community level?
     (iii)  What powers should the proposed Authority have?
     (iv)What relationship should the Authority have with other Community institutions and with national authorities, including the new UK Food Standards Agency?
     (v)To what extent are the Commission's proposals likely to achieve the stated aims of establishing, through the Authority, a "scientific point of reference for the whole Union", which will "contribute to a high level of consumer health protection, to restore and maintain consumer confidence"?[9]
     (vi)In what respects will the Commission's "farm to table" legislative action plan contribute most to these aims?

11. In addition, members of the Sub-Committee visited Brussels for informal discussions with the office of the UK Permanent Representative to the EU, the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), Members of the European Parliament, Commissioner David Byrne (responsible for Health and Consumer Protection) and staff of DG SANCO. Although we have reported a number of comments made by the hosts at those meetings, these do not have the status of formal evidence. A glossary of acronyms and technical terms is on page 2 above, before the Contents page.

12. The Committee would like to record its thanks to the witnesses for their helpful submissions and to Professor James, Commissioner Byrne and others for providing valuable advice and assistance to the inquiry.

1   Council Directive 92/59/EEC is the legal basis for the Rapid Alert System for Food. The system deals with all products which can be regarded as food, or which are intended to come in contact with food, and which are placed on the market within the EU. Where a Member State decides to ban or restrict the marketing of a product which is considered to carry a serious and immediate risk to the health and safety of the consumer, it is obliged to notify the Commission. The Commission then issues a same-day warning ("alert notification") to contact points in all the Member States. Information about products stopped at the external borders of the EU may also be transmitted through this system. Participation of third countries is not formalised, as they fall outside the scope of the Directive. However, the Commission informs a third country if it is known that a foodstuff subject to an alert notification has been exported to that country and also when a product originating from the country has been the subject of a notification, so as to allow it to take corrective action. Paragraph 18 of the White Paper indicates various improvements which the Commission would like to make to the system. Back

2   The Commission's target for presenting the legislative proposal, and in turn the target for adoption, are expected to slip. This may affect the EFA's commencement date. Back

3   See footnote to paragraph 3. Back

4   Paragraph 80 of the White Paper explains that the Commission does not at present have a comprehensive legal instrument which enables it to take emergency measures to ban the import or sale of any types of food or feed, whatever their geographical origin, including certain processed products originating in EU Member States. The need for this has been exposed by the recent dioxin crisis in Belgium. Back

5   An acronym for "Direction générale de la santé et de la protection des consommateurs". Back

6   Food, animal nutrition (with sub­committee on animal welfare), veterinary measures relating to public health, plants, cosmetics and non-food products, medicinal products and medical devices, and toxicity, ecotoxicity and environment. Back

7   James, P., Kemper, F. and Pascal, G. A European Food and Public Health Authority: the future of scientific advice in the EU. European Commission, DG SANCO, December 1999. Back

8   See Professor James's oral evidence passim but especially at QQ 1-5. Back

9   White Paper, paragraph 116. Back

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