European Affairs

We Must Restore Consumer Confidence in Food     Print Email
David Byrne

Food safety and genetically modified food are issues that concern consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, as elsewhere in the world. The preparations for a new trade round have once again underlined the need to address consumer concerns about health and safety, to increase consumer choice and to deliver real benefits to consumers.

At the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Doha last November, the EU took the position that the new round must have a comprehensive agenda and address issues of general public concern, such as environmental protection and the adequate re§ection of consumer interests in trade rules.


In the new round we will therefore seek clarity on matters such as the role of WTO rules in relation to environmental labeling, and to the use of the precautionary principle.

Such questions should not be addressed through dispute settlement panels but by the governments that are WTO members, through negotiation rather than by litigation. We need to bring certainty and predictability into the world trade system, and to ensure that WTO rules really facilitate trade by being transparent, proportionate and non-discriminatory.

Protecting the health of EU consumers must be an overriding priority, and I am committed to ensuring that high food safety and quality standards are maintained. The Doha Declaration reconfirmed that WTO members have the right to take measures for the protection of public health at the levels they consider appropriate. Of course, such measures must be justified, non-discriminatory and not a disguised restriction of trade. But in cases of doubt, public health must be given priority.

The precautionary principle helps ensure that consumer interests are fully protected. This approach may be used where the possibility of harmful effects on health or on the environment has been identified, and preliminary scientific evaluation proves inconclusive for assessing the level of risk.

This is fully recognized in the SPS agreement covering sanitary and phyto-sanitary requirements. The EU wishes to clarify its application further, in particular as far as the environment is concerned, as part of the working program of the Committee on Trade and Environment defined in Doha. There are indeed good reasons to clarify the rules of the game, to reduce the risk of arbitrary use of measures and to enhance consumer protection in a transparent and internationally acceptable way.

The EU is equally committed to ensuring that consumers have access to information to enable them to make informed choices about the products they buy. The WTO work program agreed in Doha should produce clearer guidelines on the implications of WTO rules for the kind of labeling that producers and governments may wish to introduce.

That brings me to one of the big food-related issues of the moment, that of genetically modified food. It is true there are differences in attitudes to GM food on both sides of the Atlantic. But what has struck me is the extent to which this debate has been polarized. On both sides of the argument key players have resorted to scare-mongering tactics, gross exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims.

We need to get away from the emotional and the irrational, and from bullying tactics, if substantial progress is to be made. There are irrational fears of GM food in the EU and equally irrational fears in the United States about how we in Europe are proposing to address the issue.

Let me be very frank. Unless we can give EU consumers confidence in this new technology, then GM is dead in Europe. Unless we put in place strong, yet fair, laws in Europe, the potential of biotechnology in the agrifood arena will be lost. Strong but fair rules are exactly what the European Commission has proposed in its new package of draft laws.

They will put in place a new, more efficient and transparent procedure for authorizing GMO food. Animal feed derived from GMOs will also have to undergo safety assessment prior to marketing. This will provide reassurance to consumers that only products that have been thoroughly assessed for safety will be put on the market.

GM food and feed will have to be labeled as such. We stand accused that this is a major imposition, that it is unjustified and unenforceable. I reject these accusations. Our consumers are demanding this. They are entitled to choice and full information.

Those who say that these labels are not science-based fail to understand that labeling is also an issue of consumer information. Consumer information is an official right of European consumers, formally recognized as such in the European Union Treaty. We must take consumer information very seriously. It is akin to having a right to consumer information in the U.S. Constitution.

Labels that cover all GM derived food ensure that our consumers are able to choose a GM food or a non-GM food. We can, moreover, assure consumers that the labels are underpinned by effective traceability systems. Such systems also facilitate post-market control.

The recent case in the United States, in which a GM-maize, StarLink, approved only for animal feed, entered the human food chain, demonstrates clearly that the lack of a mandatory traceability requirement could result in huge costs.

In practice, the rules set out in the new proposal on traceability and labeling mean that business operators must be able to identify from whom a GM product has been received, and retain and transmit information concerning GM products to the next operator in the chain. The information must also be made available to competent authorities upon request.

The principle of traceability of food and feed, and of the ingredients and materials used in food and feed production, is one of the general principles that will apply to all EU food legislation once our new food law framework comes into force in the months ahead. The GM specific proposals are therefore part of our wider policy on food law.

The effective moratorium on new approvals of GM products in the EU is an unfortunate situation and, in my personal view, its continuation is helping nobody. It has serious implications for European industry, agriculture and research. It creates legal uncertainty.

The fact is that a number of EU member states have since 1999 demanded a more stringent and transparent regulatory framework for marketing authorizations and a labeling and traceability regime for GMOs and GMO-derived products. Their position is that pending the adoption of such rules, and in accordance with preventive and precautionary principles, new authorizations for growing and marketing of GM products should remain suspended. As a result, the authorization of both pending and new products has come to a grinding halt.

It is my firm intention to get the approvals process moving again. In March 2001 we put new environmental legislation on the statute book, providing a stricter and more transparent regulatory framework for deliberate releases of GMOs into the environment. In July we put forward the proposals for traceability and labeling and for streamlining the authorizations of GM food and feed. These proposals have been generally well received by the Members of the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, who now need to discuss and adopt them.

In October 2001, we had a first round of discussions with the member states with a view to re-starting GM approvals. A number of EU governments have said they prefer to have the GM labeling and traceability system in place before resuming the authorization process. Others consider a voluntary commitment by the industry to start respecting the traceability and labeling rules is sufficient.

I understand that U.S. producers of processed foods operating in the EU are prepared to anticipate the application of these rules, as are other producers and retailers. For the moment, however, the exact timing and conditions for the resumption of authorizations remains undecided, to be resolved in further discussions. There are a host of pragmatic and legal issues that need to be addressed, but the Commission is determined to push the issue forward.

The fact is that the initial refusal by the industry to segregate GM from non-GM crops has only served to magnify public resistance. Such hard-line positions have played into the hands of those who claim that the United States wants to force-feed GM food to European citizens, without any consideration for their consumer rights or ethical concerns.

A lot of damage has been done by this polarization of the GM issue. Both industry and politicians now have to face its consequences. Even with new approvals coming through and new safety laws in place, it will take time to reestablish consumer confidence.

We are looking to the future European Food Authority (EFA) to play a leading role in rebuilding this consumer confidence. The EFA is one of the cornerstones of the comprehensive food safety system we are putting in place in the EU. When we were preparing our new approach to food safety we looked extensively across the Atlantic and elsewhere, to see what we could learn from experiences in other countries.

We saw that the American public placed great confidence in the work of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, an institution that is science-based and at the same time entrusted with management and legislation.

Upon further analysis however we concluded that such a model, while attractive in itself and clearly working for the

United States, would not be appropriate for the European scene. For one thing, the EU Treaty entrusts decision-making on policy and legislation to the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. We must respect this.

In addition, the absence of a separation between responsibilities for risk assessment and risk management has been identified as one of the root causes of the BSE (or "mad cow") crisis. The damage done by this crisis to EU agriculture and to public trust in the capacity of public authorities and the agri-food industry to ensure safe food, was what we most needed to repair.

So in the European context, the Food Authority will be responsible for risk assessment and scientific advice, and its operations will follow the principles of excellence, transparency and independence. We are making sure that the Authority will have the most up-to-date intelligence gathering systems for all relevant epidemiological information, prevalence figures, exposure data, etc.

The Authority will set up extensive scientific networks with centers of excellence in other EU countries and further afield. It will also have a capacity to leverage research on food safety issues when necessary.

Above all we have chosen to make the EFA an independent body, with communicating with the public as one of its core functions. The EFA will communicate scientifically sound opinions about risks in the food chain and threats to consumer health.

An organization's independence from in§uences which may result in bias, its openness in explaining uncertainty and its speed in communicating information whenever an unacceptable risk is identified or suspected, are the key factors in effective risk communication and in building public trust.

Amongst certain consumers, who act as trendsetters and market leaders, a more critical attitude to science can be seen. Experience has taught them that one day's scientific "truth" may turn out to have been only a part of the story once further research has been undertaken and completed. Science has limits, and we must recognize them, if only to avoid a loss of credibility of science itself.

Consumers may also resist genetically modified food because they feel that there are more familiar "low tech" alternatives available. Consumers balance the risks they perceive in new products on offer against their benefits. They may more easily accept real or perceived risks or technological innovations when they see clear benefits in the final product for themselves.

We may have to look to the next generation of GMOs to offer such clear and tangible benefits for consumers. According to marketing specialists, the bottom line is that "the customer is always right." So, consumers may be ready to buy GM food only when they find a good reason for choosing GM rather than non-GM food. But sound information must be made available to the public; and they must have the right to choose.

Life sciences and biotechnology are in a stage of exponential growth. They open up a vast range of potential in terms of future benefits, competitive advantage, and economic growth and employment opportunities. The European Union is fully aware of this potential, and will be working out its own strategic vision for life sciences and biotechnology over the next decade.

Europe wants to be at the leading edge of innovation and competitiveness in these fields. We share many of the same goals as our U.S. partners in this regard. It is my expectation that we can move together in facing the challenges and reaping the opportunities the future holds, while competing fairly on global markets.

I trust that further constructive dialogue and, ultimately, our shared values and objectives will help to identify the mutually acceptable solutions we are all looking for. I believe that, once all the posturing and shouting is put aside, we will find they are very close at hand.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number I in the Winter of 2002.