Select Committee on European Union Thirteenth Report


Annex A

  

United Kingdom Government's response to the European Commission's White Paper on Food Safety—European Food Authority

1.  We welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on food safety and to comment on the proposal to create a European Food Authority. Protection of consumer health is of paragraphmount importance and we believe it is necessary to take steps to re-establish public confidence in EU food policy.

  2.  The United Kingdom has recently established a national Food Standards Agency to protect public health and safeguard the interests of consumers in relation to the sale and consumption of food. The UK Agency encompasses all aspects of food safety and standards and has three core values: to put the consumer first; be open and accessible and be an independent voice. Agency staff are accountable to a Board rather than directly to Ministers and the Agency is legally required to be open about the way it works, to base its assessment of food safety issues on the best available science and to consult widely before taking action or making recommendations to Government.

  3.  At European level, we see a need to rationalise Commission efforts and adopt a more coherent and effective approach to food safety. We therefore support the establishment of a European Food Authority (EUFA) and would hope that it will encompass as much as possible of the approaches taken by the UK Government to protect public health and the interests of consumers.

  4.  We are, therefore, concerned that the proposals for a EUFA set out in the White Paper do not fully address the need to integrate the processes of risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

  5.  The key attributes of such a body must be scientific excellence, openness, independence of commercial interests and a determination to act in the interests of consumers. The responsibilities and resources assigned to it must enable it to command the respect of consumers, industry and national authorities. In particular:

    —  We agree that there is no need to change the Treaty.

    —  Responsibility for legislation should remain with Commission/Council/European Parliament under established procedures.

    —  The closest possible linkage must be established between risk assessment, risk management (identification of appropriate regulatory action) and risk communication.

    —  The EUFA should be responsible for communicating a single coherent message on both risk assessment and risk management.

    —  An obligation should be placed on the Commission to respond in a timely way to any recommendations of the EUFA.

    —  A Consultative Committee of the heads of National Agencies should be established to help the EUFA in its work.

    —  Given the importance of close functional links between risk assessment, management, communication and legislation, there would be major benefits in locating the EUFA in a central location.

    —  More consideration needs to be given to effective arrangements for crisis management.

STATUS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

  6.  The White Paper proposes an "independent" body, "supported" by the Commission and with a "high level of accountability to the European institutions and citizens". We await more detailed Commission proposals on the status and accountability of the new body, but would not wish it to be unduly influenced by any one EU Institution. We therefore propose that to be clearly seen to be widely accountable it should report annually to the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament as well as making such reports publicly available.

SCOPE AND REMIT

  7.  We were disappointed by the narrow remit proposed for the EUFA. The UK FSA has a comprehensive role, encompassing food safety, standards, labelling and nutrition. We consider that the remit of the EUFA should at least be broadened to include food labelling. It should also have a role in the control of health claims and "functional foods".

  8.  However, in other ways the proposed remit is rather broader than we believe to be appropriate. It is important that the Authority confines itself to issues which affect food safety, including the provisions of information to consumers on potential health risks. This is set out very clearly in the White Paper which states that "the principal objective of a European Food Authority will be to contribute to a high level of consumer health protection in the areas of food safety, through which consumer confidence can be restored and maintained". We were surprised therefore to see that it was proposed that the Authority should cover such matters as animal welfare, environmental protection and consumer expectations of quality, which are not directly related to health protection. In our view the remit of the Authority should not extend into such areas.

  9.  On nutrition, the EUFA could become a source of authoritative scientific advice and encourage co-operation among Member States. Some issues require action at Community level—we have been pressing the Commission to bring forward proposals to make nutrition labelling mandatory, to help people make informed choices about the food they buy. But the EUFA should not become directly involved in healthy eating campaigns. Such issues are best dealt with at national or local level where advice on nutrition can be tailored to the cultural and dietary conditions in each MS and account can be taken of people's varying needs and circumstances.

 RISK ANALYSIS

  10.  Effective risk analysis is the key to sound food safety decisions. The White Paper recognises the three components: risk assessment (scientific evaluation), risk management (regulation) and risk communication, but proposes confining the EUFA's role to risk assessment and communication only.

  11.  While we see no grounds for changing the responsibility for legislation, which should remain with the existing EU Institutions to maintain democratic accountability, we consider the implied division of the official/technical-level functions of risk assessment and risk management between the EUFA and the Commission is the least satisfactory aspect of the proposals.

  12.  This has caused concern to both consumer groups and industry in the UK. Consumers are concerned that a body responsible only for providing scientific advice, will have inadequate influence on management decisions. The food industry has questioned the need for such an agency and suggested that rationalisation of existing Commission services might be a better starting point. It is concerned that purely scientific advice emanating from a body with no responsibility for translating it into practical management solutions will be incomplete and excessively "precautionary".

  13.  We believe that there has to be an effective interaction between risk assessment, risk communication and risk management. If these functions are split, as in the Commission's model, between different bodies it will be essential for co-ordination mechanisms to be put in place to ensure a coherent approach. In the UK the relationship between the Food Standards Agency and other Departments is set out in published concordats and working level agreements. A similar arrangement could be adopted for the EUFA.

  14.  We believe the EUFA should be able to identify practical solutions and options and make recommendations for action, including the need for legislation. The EUFA could then respond to stakeholder concerns in a way that was seen to be independent of the Commission. The Commission might also be placed under an obligation to respond to EUFA's recommendations within a set time and explain the action they proposed taking.

RISK COMMUNICATION

  15.  If public confidence is to be maintained, coherent communication from both risk assessors and regulators is of fundamental importance, particularly in an emergency. Giving responsibility for risk assessment and communication to the EUFA, while the Commission continues to be responsible for risk management (identification of regulatory options and formulation of legislative proposals), with a separagraphte communication role of its own, will require radical new procedures and disciplines if the risk of conflicting messages is to be avoided. We consider that the EUFA should be responsible for communicating a single coherent message on both risk assessment and risk management.

 RELATIONSHIP WITH NATIONAL AGENCIES

  16.  The EUFA will need to network constructively with national food agencies and authorities so as to make the most effective use of the expertise available within the Member States. It will also need a strategy for dealing with disagreements between the national bodies. This will need to encompass early identification of potential problems followed by an open and constructive discussion by all parties, based on the best available scientific information and analysis. We support the setting up of a consultative committee of the heads of the national agencies to assist the EUFA in its work. With a view to enlargement, it may also be sensible to draw in observers from the applicant countries at an early stage.

RESEARCH

  17.  It will not be feasible for the EUFA to match the range and quality of research currently undertaken in the Member States. If a separagraphte budget is made available for an independent EUFA programme, all work must be subject to genuine competitive tendering. It should also draw on and co-ordinate with research already underway or which has been carried out by Member States.

SURVEILLANCE AND ENFORCEMENT

  18.  While enforcement and control remain the responsibility of Member States, the Commission intend to take steps to harmonise criteria for national controls. We will comment once further details are known. Since the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) currently monitors and reports on Member States enforcement of legislation, clear lines of communication and responsibility with the EUFA will be needed to facilitate rapid feedback and assessment of any emerging health concerns.

ACCESS AND INITIATIVE

  19.  The method of working may depend on the role and size of the EUFA. A small, scientific body would find it difficult to deal directly with all outside stakeholders in the Member States and there may have to be some constraints on the ability of such a body to act on its own initiative. On the other hand, a larger body with a wider management role would need to enter into dialogue with Member States and stakeholders. A body that was not open and accessible would do little to reassure the public. However, to make the EUFA's work programme manageable, formal requests for advice will probably still need to be channelled through the Commission or the Consultative Committee.

CRISIS MANAGEMENT

  20.  Rapid risk assessment and safeguard actions are essential in an emergency. Dividing responsibility for risk assessment and risk management between different EU bodies will make it difficult to achieve swift and co-ordinated Community action. Separagraphte streams of communication from the Member States (on their own safeguard measures); the EUFA (on scientific assessment); and the Commission (on proposed "politically-based" action) could increase public anxiety and confusion. We believe this problem requires considerably more consideration.

RESOURCES

  21.  Commission officials have spoken of a budget of 100m

 for the EUFA. It is not clear if this is the total, or the additional cost. Most of the proposed functions of the EUFA are already performed elsewhere within the EU framework and we must be careful to avoid duplication of effort.

May 2000


 
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