Select Committee on European Union Seventh Report


PART 2: WITNESSES' VIEWS AND THE COMMITTEE'S OPINIONS

RELATIONS WITH THE FOOD AND VETERINARY OFFICE (DG SANCO)

101. The potential role of the EFA in relation to enforcement of compliance with EU food safety law has already been discussed (paragraphs 59-61). In this context its relationship with the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) will be crucial. The FVO is an arm of DG SANCO, based in Dublin. Its role is not directly one of enforcement (unlike some functions of the UK Food Standards Agency), but it has an inspection and auditing role. It carries out a regular programme of visits to Member States and produces written reports on their food safety systems and installations and systems, with recommendations to both Member States and the Commission.[42] The FVO's activities are thus closely linked to enforcement; hence the White Paper envisages that it should remain part of the Commission.

102. A number of witnesses (including CA, the NFU and Professor Lang) argued that the FVO should be transferred to the EFA, at least in the long run. This is an issue on which the James et al Report remained deliberately silent.[43] CA pointed out that close links between the FVO and the EFA would be essential if the Authority was to advise on matters of compliance and enforcement (p 93). According to Mr Murray, BEUC's present position was one of acquiescence in the proposal that the FVO should remain part of DG SANCO. The FVO's reports on national systems were already valuable but needed to be made more transparent; pressures from certain Member States for the reports to be kept private should be resisted. Dr Caroline Jackson MEP described the recent FVO report on the incidence of BSE in France as "a devastating read", and was critical more generally of the failure of the Commission and Member States to act on the recommendations of FVO reports.[44]

OPINION

103. Although we understand why it is convenient to the Commission for the Food and Veterinary Office to be an integral part of DG SANCO, consideration of the FVO's functions suggests that it has a much greater affinity with the EFA's proposed "information gathering and surveillance function"—ambiguous though that may be—than with the Commission's risk management and enforcement responsibilities. We have therefore, after some deliberation, come to the conclusion that it would be right to bring together the functions of the EFA and the FVO. The question whether any amendment of the EC Treaty is needed would have to be looked into, but essentially we see this move as doing no more than reinforcing the powers already envisaged for the Authority.

104. If this proposal is not immediately practicable, close liaison between the EFA and the FVO will clearly be essential and, for so long as the two bodies remain separate, the EFA must have the right of immediate access to all FVO analyses and findings, particularly if the EFA is going to be heavily involved in, and indeed responsible for, the Rapid Alert System. It goes without saying that there should be utmost transparency in relation to the FVO's audit activities and findings, as there would be if they became part of the EFA's remit.

PUBLIC HEALTH IN THE WIDER SENSE, INCLUDING NUTRITION

105. Commission President Prodi's original concept was an authority which embraced public health issues generally as well as food safety. The James et al Report was accordingly entitled "A European Food and Public Health Authority". The proposal which emerged with the White Paper is for a narrower remit. It has been suggested that this is in anticipation of a separate public health initiative planned for the French Presidency in July-December 2000 (QQ 228, 261). The BMA argued that the EFA's remit should include "active health promotion" (p 89); we note that the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has argued similarly in its submission to the Commission.

106. The question of how far the EFA should become involved in questions of nutrition and dietary policy was raised by a number of witnesses. In Chapter 7 of the White Paper (at paragraphs 106-107) the Commission refers to its intention to bring forward a Community action plan on nutritional policy and to propose Council recommendations for dietary guidelines. It justifies this by reference to the rising interest of consumers in the nutritional value of the food they purchase and a growing need for correct information on the food they eat. Elsewhere the White Paper is not specific on what role, if any, the EFA might play. Paragraph 45, in talking about the Authority's scientific advisory role, says that "its remit will encompass both risk and nutritional issues", but this is not spelled out. We note that Commissioner Byrne has said that "the Commission is reflecting on how the European Food Authority could contribute to the provision of clear and accessible information to help consumers make better-informed choices".[45]

107. A number of witnesses, in particular Professor James, Professor Lang, Sustain, CA, CEG and BEUC, argued that food policy was more than a matter of food safety: nutrition was a key factor in Europe's main causes of premature death. As a public health body, the EFA should therefore be able to pronounce upon all food-related aspects of public health, not just safety. Professor James was critical of the White Paper for not acknowledging the implications of EU enlargement in this context (QQ 5, 110, 133, 138; pp 94-5). Representatives of the food industry, however (e.g. the Provision Trade Federation and the Dairy Industry Federation), felt it was not appropriate for the EFA to have a role in relation to nutrition, except in so far as it was relevant to food safety; the Provision Trade Federation even questioned the validity of the Commission's proposed action plan on nutrition (pp 97, 114). Novartis felt that the EFA should provide positive messages about nutrition and should put the risks associated with food into context with the benefits; otherwise, if the EFA were associated only with food scares, it would be seen as only reactive and would not contribute towards improving consumer confidence (p 113). The general consensus, however, even among those favouring a broad remit (e.g. Sustain, Q 138), was that the EFA should not make specific pronouncements on what people should or should not be eating, but should provide information on which sensible choices could be made.

OPINION

108. We consider that the EFA's role should, as proposed in the White Paper, be primarily focused on food safety. We recognise that wider aspects of public health (including nutrition) are areas which, like food safety, involve major public concern and scientific complexity. Nutrition relates to both food safety and public health, and therefore needs to be considered in both sectors. We believe, however, that the EFA should deal with nutrition issues only to the extent that they have implications for food regulation policy, and that other aspects should be given separate and careful consideration by the Commission.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

109. In common with the Soil Association, English Nature stressed the importance of integrating environmental considerations into food policy, suggesting that there would be a need for close working between the EFA and the Commission's Agriculture and Environment Directorates General (p 100). The Soil Association considered that the Authority should have a specific role in relation to the regulation of GMO releases (p 119). CA argued that the EFA's remit must allow it to have an effective input into all EU policies that related to food, including the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy (p 94). Ms Longfield (Sustain) felt that the absence of any mention of CAP reform in the White Paper was "an extraordinary omission", since the CAP helped to drive the whole Community food policy system (QQ 133, 140-1). The same point was made by CEG (Q 229, p 62).

OPINION

110. The EFA must demonstrate sensitivity to environmental as well as consumer interests. Integration of environmental concerns into other areas of EU policy has been a key theme of recent years, particularly since the Amsterdam Treaty. We do not believe that the Authority should necessarily be involved directly in environmental policy issues, e.g. biodiversity. But it is essential that it develops close links with the European Environment Agency and the policy-makers in DG Environment, and that it plays its own part in pursuing the environmental integration agenda. This would require the Authority to be alert to any potentially adverse impacts which food safety policies might have on the environment. Similarly, as several witnesses have pointed out, reform of the CAP has profound implications for food production (not to mention nature conservation). Again, it is essential that the EFA liaises closely with the DGs responsible for agriculture and fisheries. We would regard as a natural part of the Authority's remit the freedom to draw attention to issues which affect the quality and safety of food in all these areas of policy.

FUNDING

111. The White Paper is, not unreasonably, silent on the likely budget of the Authority, given that the range of its activities is still a matter of consultation. Various figures have been mentioned, including an annual sum of €100 million. Since that would be less than half the amount of the UK Food Standards Agency's budget alone, it was hard to see how the EFA could possibly perform the role envisaged on such a meagre budget (QQ 1, 106, p 34). Mr Podger said the difficulty was that the White Paper contained "a series of very interesting ideas and proposals but they are not fleshed out in a way that we would feel in any way able to cost them" (Q 62).

OPINION

112. Not too much weight should be attached at this stage to the various figures for the EFA's budget which have been bandied about unofficially. The funding of the Authority must reflect a clearly focused role, which makes best use of both in-house and external resources. We would expect a large element of the budget to go on collecting and collating data and on commissioning research, including desk research. This is a matter to be considered carefully when the Commission comes forward with its final proposals, following consultation.

LOCATION

113. Depending on the nature of the Authority and the degree of day-to-day autonomy it is to enjoy, a case can be made for locating it in any of the Member States, as has been done, for instance, with the Food and Veterinary Office (Dublin), the European Environment Agency (Copenhagen) and the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products (London). The Finnish Government is one of several who have made a bid to host the EFA. On the other hand, Commissioner Byrne (citing paragraph 58 of the White Paper) stressed that the EFA must be "central and accessible"—i.e. conveniently located for attendance at meetings by international scientists and consultants and for easy, face-to-face interaction with the risk managers in the Commission[46]. The European Parliament, too, attaches considerable importance to accessibility (p 103).

OPINION

114. We do not feel that the location of the EFA is a matter on which we need express a firm opinion, but we agree that there does seem to be a good case for a central location, e.g. in Brussels. The important requirement, however, is that there should be good linkages between the EFA and other relevant Community institutions and offices, particularly the Food and Veterinary Office.

General Conclusions and Recommendation

115. The White Paper leaves unresolved a number of questions, not least on the status and powers of the proposed European Food Authority. Although in general we support the concept of the Authority, in our opinion the proposal stands or falls on whether the EFA, as constituted, can be given the resources and powers to enable it to establish a track record in scientific excellence—a process which we acknowledge will take time—and to develop rapidly an effective monitoring and surveillance capability, coupled with ability to interact productively with national food agencies and equivalent authorities in the Member States. Achievement of these aims will depend on political will—on the part of Member States and the Commission—to see the Authority succeed. Otherwise the exercise may prove to be a waste of time.

116. Scientific excellence is the overriding goal. The EFA must be given the chance to show that it has genuine potential to become, in the words of the White Paper, "the scientific point of reference for the whole Union", which we see as essential for underpinning tangible improvements in food safety standards, more consistent implementation and enforcement, and enhanced consumer confidence. Later, depending on its performance, it may be appropriate to consider whether the Authority should be given an enhanced role in relation to risk management; this, however, should be seen as reinforcing, not replacing, the unequivocal responsibility of the Council, the Commission and the Member States to ensure that food safety standards are based on best science, and that Community law is enforced rigorously and consistently throughout the European Union in accordance with the EFA's advice. Meanwhile we look forward to seeing the Commission's considered legislative proposals for the Authority, on which we may wish to offer a further opinion.

RECOMMENDATION TO THE HOUSE

117. The Committee considers that the proposals for a European Food Authority raise important questions to which the attention of the House should be drawn. It therefore makes this Report to the House for debate.


42   The NFU and CEG drew attention to a recent report on a series of visits by DG SANCO/FVO officials for the purposes of evaluating Member States' foodstuff control systems (COM(99)751, 12 January 2000) (QQ 201, 223). Back

43   The reasons for this silence were, according to Professor James, political. Back

44   Comments made during informal discussion with Sub­Committee D. Back

45   Speaking notes for Internal Market Council, 16 March 2000. Back

46   Comments made at meeting with Sub­Committee D. Back


 
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