Byrne takes an over-cautious approach to food authority

 

Irish Commissioner Mr David Byrne yesterday unveiled plans to establish a European Food Authority as the centrepiece of a Commission White Paper on food safety. In the past year it has been hard to escape issues of food safety, even with a cursory reading of the daily newspapers.

Dioxin contamination in Belgium, the safety of genetically modified foods and the quarrel between France and Britain over the EU ban on British beef have all been highlighted in the news. In one of his first speeches to the European Parliament in July 1999, Commission President Mr Romano Prodi stated that winning back consumers' confidence in food would be one of the main tasks of his tenure in Brussels.

The announcements yesterday by Mr Byrne are part of a strategy to do just that, but will they be successful?

Mr Byrne advocates the establishment of an independent Food Authority modelled on the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products in London. The new authority will be primarily involved in risk assessment, the provision of scientific advice, opinions and recommendations, as well as communicating with EU consumers about issues of food safety.

It is disappointing that Mr Byrne has not taken the radical step of giving the new authority decision-making and law-making powers.

The explanation by the Commission is that such a move would require a change to the EU treaties and would represent "an unwarranted dilution of democratic accountability". This is a feeble argument against enhancing consumer health and ensuring the continued viability of the European food industry.

The issue of accountability could be easily dealt with by specifying that the authority produces an annual report, which could be debated by the European Parliament. Additionally, the director of the authority could be permitted to answer questions about the authority's work whenever requested to do so by the Parliament's Environment, Consumer Protection and Public Health Committee.

The European Parliament is ideally suited to this role, having been the main catalyst for changes to the EU regulations for foodstuffs following the BSE crisis.

The Commissioner, instead, should have used the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a model for a future European Food Agency. Over the years, it has built up an enviable reputation for protecting the interests of consumers, as well as having the full confidence of the food industry.

The FDA has immense powers, a very large staff and a broad range of activities. It can be sued for its judgments, while also having the ability to institute legal proceedings. The FDA boasts that it protects the health of 274 million Americans, at a yearly cost to the taxpayer of $3 per person. With more than 360 million Europeans, is £2-£3 not a small price to pay for protecting European consumers?

Unfortunately, Mr Byrne is seeking a much less radical solution to the issues of food safety, by creating an authority which will be unable to give final judgments on issues relating to EU food policy. Placing many of the EU scientific committees within the ambit of this authority is a good idea.

The Commission argues that over a short period, the authority will establish itself as an authoritative point of reference for consumers, the food industry and national food agencies with regard to food safety issues. At present, the EU scientific committees, with limited resources, have earned themselves a worthy reputation for producing authoritative scientific advice.

As the recent furore over the French decision to continue to ban UK beef demonstrates, unless scientific advice is acted upon it will remain worthless. Mr Byrne must come up with some system whereby the recommendations of the new European Food Authority are adhered to by all EU member-states.

Specifically, regarding the UK-French "beef war" debacle, the Commissioner should be advocating at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference a treaty change to allow for "expeditious" judgments from the European Court of Justice in cases which severely impact on the smooth functioning of the internal market.

The Rapid Alert System (RAS) for food emergencies, which is activated when the health of EU consumers is under threat from a food safety problem in more than one member-state, is also to become part of the remit of this new authority. This system came into play during the dioxin contamination crisis in Belgium, but it was hindered when the Belgian authorities delayed by some weeks the provision of information to the Commission.

Mr Byrne proposes to strengthen and extend the RAS to include the animal feed chain, but the most effective change would be to introduce the possibility of imposing sanctions against countries such as Belgium which flout the rules.

There are, though, important initiatives within the White Paper, which must be applauded. The document identifies more than 80 areas where European food law needs to be amended and improved. The list includes a general food law directive, as well as proposals on food labelling claims, foods for diabetics and streamlining food hygiene measures.

It includes a "Work Programme" for the enactment of these measures by 2002, which is an important innovation. The Commission has also adopted guidelines for the operation of the "precautionary principle", which specifies that questions of consumer protection and public health, rather than being simply scientific advice, will be taken into account when devising new food legislation in certain controversial areas.

The Commission also promises a number of initiatives in relation to genetically modified foods, aimed at improving the labelling of such products.

Mr Byrne has begun an important discussion on the future European regulatory regime for foodstuffs. He has taken some long-overdue decisions, but in relation to the establishment of an independent food authority, he has erred on the side of caution. A European Food Authority must be able to anticipate potential food hazards and rectify the situation immediately.

The authority Mr Byrne proposes could too easily fall into the role of managing food emergencies, rather than anticipating them. The hope is that these anomalies will be rectified before the Commission finalises its proposals for the European Food Authority by September 2000.

Raymond O'Rourke is a food lawyer with Mason Hayes & Curran, Solicitors, Dublin