Decision on European Medicines Agency location needed, says health chief

Commissioner praises work of Irish not-for-profit FoodCloud in cutting food waste

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for health and food safety,  at the EU Citizens’ Dialogue on Health and Food Safety at  Dublin Castle, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwell’s

Vytenis Andriukaitis, European commissioner for health and food safety, at the EU Citizens’ Dialogue on Health and Food Safety at Dublin Castle, on Monday. Photograph: Maxwell’s

 

A decision on where to relocate the European Medicines Agency from London as a consequence of Brexit needs to be made as soon as possible, according to the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Speaking in Dublin today, the commissioner said the European Commission had to be neutral on the issue of its new location. But he hoped the European Council would decide by the Autumn to guarantee a smooth transition with what in effect was a Autumn 2019 deadline in place.

This tight timing was necessary because of the agency’s critical role in ensuring patient safety.

With 900 staff, the regulator is one of the biggest EU bodies, and the Republic is one of at least 14 states competing to become its new home.

Irish authorities have identified two potential sites for the agency – one in the north Dublin docklands and another near Dublin Airport – and argue that basing the regulator in the city would, given its proximity to London, make it easier for the organisation to retain specialist staff.

There was speculation in some quarters recently that the French government was seeking to have it based in Strasbourg in exchange for agreeing to allow the European Parliament to close its base in the city and relocate to Brussels.

Trade-off ‘unthinkable’

A report by news agency Reuters, citing EU officials, said the idea was gaining traction among MEPs and that discreet talks on such a swap had taken place. However in a strongly-worded statement since, the European People’s Party, including some French MEPs, said the trade-off was “unthinkable”.

At a citizens’ dialogue on the future of European health and food safety in Dublin Castle, Mr Andriukaitis acknowledged there were concerns that food safety regulations would be relaxed in the UK following Brexit. If this was to happen, it would cause particular difficulties for Ireland, he accepted, given the scale of Irish food exports to Britain.

While there was a risk that Ireland would be exposed to lower standards in products coming from its biggest and neighbouring market, the commissioner stressed a pragmatic Europe-wide solution would need to be found as it was an unprecedented scenario facing the single market of EU member states. “It’s very difficult for all of us. Nobody knows how to move forward. All of us have to find practical solutions,” he added.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, speaking at the same event, said while it was clear the UK was going to drop EU legislation in this area and replace it with new legislation by way of a repeal Bill, she believed British consumers, in light of how BSE had arisen in that country, “would have great difficulty” with a lowering of food standards.

Mr Andriukaitis said the EU’s plans to end the unacceptably high level of food waste by 2030 would be realised if all relevant parties and member states were ambitious for such an outcome. “In the EU, around 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually, with associated costs estimated at €143 billion. And while 20 per cent of food produced in the EU is lost or wasted, at the same time, 55 million EU citizens cannot afford a quality meal every second day,” he said.

Food waste

With this in mind, the Commission recently established the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste, bringing together all key parties representing both public and private interests, “to help catalyse this process at EU level and support achievement of the United Nations target of halving food waste by 2030”.

Globally there was a need to ensure – despite limited natural resources and the impact of climate change – that “the nearly 10 billion people we expect to be living on this planet in 2050 will all have access to a sufficient supply of safe, nutritious food”. In this context, he said, there was simply no room for food waste.

He praised the leading role of Irish not-for-profit FoodCloud, which helps to connect communities and retailers through the use of the modern technology to facilitate redistribution of surplus food.

What was started as a college project by students Aoibheann O’Brien and Iseult Ward in 2012 has become a tech start-up that connects businesses which had surplus food with charities who needed food.

Five years on, 8,300 tonnes of food, more than 18 million meals, had been diverted from landfill. FoodCloud employs 30 people tackling food waste from almost 2,000 businesses in Ireland and increasingly in the UK.