With recent outbreaks in food-borne illness in both Europe and the US, particularly the E.coli outbreaks from this summer in Germany and the U.S., and the salmonella-infected ground turkey recall in the States as well, it has become evident that cross-Atlantic contamination is a real threat. However, before even creating a comprehensive, cooperative transatlantic approach to food safety, each side is dealing with its own domestic problems in narrowing the gap between food safety legislation and actual implementation.
In the U.S., despite the signing of the Food Safety Modernization Bill (FSMA) last December, the safety law has remained unfunded. And with the new “supercommittee” created as a result of the debt-ceiling issue, the law will most likely continue to remain simply words on paper. With Congress under pressure to make only spending cuts, the supercommittee will be unlikely to allocate funds for provisions in the bill such as extra inspections and food testing. In addition, the House of Representatives has passed its 2012 Agricultural Funding Bill, which has slashed almost 14 percent of the overall USDA and FDA’s funding.
In Europe, the structure is more convoluted. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) serves as a risk assessor, which is separate and different from risk management. As the risk assessor, EFSA produces scientific opinions and advice which serve as guidelines to the European Commission in drafting food safety policy and legislation. However, EFSA is not involved in monitoring, legislation creation, or implementation of adopted safety laws. Implementation is carried out by individual member states, who receive no funds from the EU for this purpose. The European Commission is tasked with monitoring, including inspections. The German case seems to highlight a weakness in this system. Germany, on its own, initially blamed Spain for the E.coli outbreak. However, this turned out to be wrong. After concluding that the outbreak came from North German bean sprouts, the fallout from the false accusations by Germany against Spain has caused financial damage to the Spanish agricultural sector. As a result Spain is seeking monetary damages.
In discussion with “European Affairs,” Carlos Alvarez Antolinez, Minister-Counselor of the EU’s Washington Delegation for Food Saftey, Health and Consumer Affairs, confirmed the serious threat of E.coli…. “The fact that the food supply chain is more complex and global than ever before also creates considerable challenges for most countries and certainly for the EU which is the largest importer of food in the world.”
Counselor Antolinez defended the EU’s food safety structure, and stated that it is “comprehensive and integrated (farm to table) and involves independent risk assessment and harmonized controls in all Member States.” He did admit that the system is not perfect. “Improvements require continued reviewing of both legal requirements and the implementation by the national authorities,” he said. “The regular monitoring conducted by the inspection service of the European Commission helps to identify areas for improvement,” he added. According to the counselor, the EC is reviewing a central component of the legislation regarding to official controls and he expects improvements “of effectiveness and efficiency”.
Importantly for transatlantic considerations, Antolinez said:
“There is already good cooperation on food safety with very frequent exchanges between the EU and the US administrations at many levels. However, even if, overall, both systems achieve similar level of protection, there are also some differences in philosophy and standards in some areas.”
Part of this difference comes from the US tendency to promote self-monitoring whereas the EU is more centrally controlled. Despite philosophical differences, Antolinez viewed the FSMA bill as “a good opportunity for convergence via equivalence and comparability determinations.” He also saw opportunities for growth in joint cooperation regarding developing nations’ regulation and implementation abilities.
Antolinez called for increased dialogue and was hopeful that current problem areas would be addressed. “I am optimistic and I think these are interesting times and the future is promising.”
Lorin Speltz is Editorial Assistant at “European Affairs”