European Affairs

Food Safety: Continuous Transatlantic Dialogue Is Essential     Print Email
David Byrne

Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, European Commission

One of the main concerns of consumers, in both Europe and the United States, is food safety. In Europe, however, consumers' confidence in the food safety regime has been badly shaken by a succession of crises - cows infected with BSE ("mad cow" disease) and poultry poisoned by dioxin are the best known. There have been no winners in this process.

Restoring consumers' confidence is a number one priority for this Commission. This implies that we have to try and put in place a more up-to-date and effective food safety regime.


If consumers' confidence is damaged, this is immediately reflected in shopping decisions. That, in turn, has a dramatic effect on farmers, producers and industry generally.

This crisis of confidence has also had the unfortunate, but inevitable, effect of eroding the trust of consumers in systems and institutions at the national and European level - systems and institutions that should monitor and ensure the highest standards of food safety.

In this situation, we have to rethink our whole approach to food safety. The White Paper on Food Safety, published by the Commission earlier this year, seeks to present the necessary guidelines, legislation and structures that will guarantee the highest possible level of health protection for consumers.

The White paper outlines a comprehensive range of actions needed to complement and modernize existing EU food law and control systems. We will need the full support of the member states and of the European Parliament if we are to achieve our ambitions. Likewise, we will also need the full support of consumers, primary producers, industry and other stakeholders.

The White paper sets out three main goals in order to put in place a coherent system by the end of 2002:

  • A comprehensive recasting and modernization of the regulatory framework, in order to make European legislation coherent, understandable and flexible.
  • The promotion of better enforcement and controls from farm to table.
  • Perhaps most significant, the creation of a European Food Authority for scientific advice in the food area.

We are currently soliciting views and comments on the Food Authority from parliamentarians and all interested parties with a view to presenting proposals by the end of September and starting the legislative process.

Why is a European Food Authority so important for meeting the twin objectives of ensuring the highest standards of food safety and restoring consumer confidence?

The first key concern is independence. Key stakeholders, including consumers, are seeking a permanent system that is independent, and perceived to be independent, of all vested interests. We must also ensure excellence and transparency.

We must develop greater certainty in the science that underpins food safety in the European Union. The Authority must become the authoritative source of scientific advice and information on food safety issues, a single and highly visible point of contact.

This situation will not come about just by the creation of the Authority, but will evolve over time as the Authority gains credibility. This will imply effective and efficient networking with member states' agencies and with the international scientific community.

The Authority should be very proactive. It should, as much as possible, identify problems before they develop into crises. It should also operate an enhanced rapid alert system for food and feed concerns.

The Authority will not be the exact replica of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, but I hope that it will acquire a similar standing and authority. We wish to separate the analysis of risk from the management of risk.

The Commission believes it is neither appropriate nor feasible in Europe to transfer risk management powers to the Authority. Decisions in the risk management area should remain the preserve of the Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers, that is to say, of the regulators who are politically accountable to the citizens and consumers of the EU.

There are those who argue that the Commission could effectively ignore the advice of the new Authority. I reject that line of argument. How could a Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection reject or ignore well-founded, independent scientific advice in relation to food safety? The interaction will be close and constant between the authorities and the regulators.

The Authority should also have a major role in risk communication. That is to say, to disseminate complex scientific information in a consumer-friendly way; to be the obvious and indispensable port-of-call for the most up-to-the-minute data on risk; to be highly visible; and to tell the good news stories about food, on nutrition for example, and not only the scary ones.

Consumer information is of paramount importance and is, in fact, a right recognized in the Amsterdam treaty, the latest treaty of the European Union. I do not pretend that we can all become microbiologists, nor do I want us to, but we need to understand better in order to make informed judgments.

Take the case of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Many consumers in Europe and elsewhere question the benefits of biotechnology. Many aspects of biotechnology are overlooked in the public debate, partly because of the failure of the biotechnology industry to demonstrate benefits to consumers as well as to producers.

I have sometimes heard scientists and industrialists dismissing consumers' apprehensions as being groundless and irrational. On the other hand, public debate is sometimes full of emotion and insufficient reason. The European Food Authority should have a determining role in informing the public.

Despite all this, I would like to make it clear that Europe has one of the best food industries in the world. The challenge is to make the system the very best. This rests on a science-based approach.

There are, however, cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain, but where the information available points to unacceptable possible risks to health. In those cases, measures should be based on what we call the Precautionary Principle. From a European perspective, the Precautionary Principle is part of the management of risk.

In February the Commission adopted a communication on the use of the Precautionary Principle. It is an idea that has been anathema to some. This is why we felt the need to clarify when and how this principle is to be applied to protect the public.

I very much hope that, by putting on paper what we understand as the Precautionary Principle, the Commission will alleviate fears that European decisions are arbitrary or motivated by trade-protectionism.

The Precautionary Principle is not a new concept, but it has increasingly been in the spotlight in recent years.

Judging what is an "acceptable" level of risk for society is an eminently political responsibility. Again, the word "political" can be misinterpreted. I mean that scientists are not entrusted with the responsibility of determining what level of risk is acceptable to the society.

Scientists have to explain clearly what they know, what they do not know and what they think. They have to evaluate as clearly as possible the type, probability and level of risk so that decision-makers can make decisions based on the best possible scientific information available.

It is now absolutely clear that members of the World Trade Orga-nization are free to choose the highest level of health protection that they deem necessary and to take the measures, including trade measures, necessary to ensure that the chosen level of protection is achieved, under certain conditions. The most important condition is that measures should be based on scientific principles and that there should be sufficient scientific evidence to warrant the measure.

There is, of course, a very important exception to that last requirement, which is that member governments can take provisional measures where there is pertinent but insufficient information available. The precautionary approach is clearly foreseen in the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, the SPS.

The main elements of our thinking can be summarized as follows:

  • The Precautionary Principle is not a politicization of science but the recognition of the need to act when there are serious concerns for health or environmental damage and scientific information is limited.
  • The determination of the appropriate action based on the Precautionary Principle must start with a scientific evaluation of existing knowledge that must be as objective as possible.
  • It is not a zero risk approach and the measures taken can vary according to the situation: a trade ban in certain circumstances, risks warnings or scientific studies in others.
  • Examination of the full range of management options should be undertaken. This should include an assessment of the potential advantages and disadvantages of various possible measures, including cost/effectiveness considerations, but the protection of health should be the determining factor.
  • Applying the Precautionary Principle is not a means to by-pass the WTO rules and avoid taking measures in accordance with what we call "good risk management practices."
  • Invoking the Precautionary Principle calls for a rational, transparent and step-by-step approach.
  • Measures taken must be:
    1. Proportional to the chosen level of protection.
    2. Non-discriminatory in their application and the least trade-restrictive.
    3. Consistent with other similar measures already adopted.
    4. Provisional and subject to review and, if necessary, modified in the light of new scientific findings.

Where possible, all interested parties should be involved in the decision-making process. There should be a transparent explanation of the need for the measures and the procedures followed in determining them.

Additional scientific data should be collected to enable a more comprehensive risk assessment to be performed as soon as possible.

We need an international consensus on the role and the application of the Precautionary Principle in order to avoid trade conflicts regarding different approaches to food safety and to reassure consumers in an increasingly interdependent world.

Trade in food products is ever increasing. The European Union is the second exporter and the largest importer of food in the world. But consumer concerns, in general, must be better addressed at the international level. I am absolutely convinced that trade and consumer confidence go hand-in-hand.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.