Recent outbreaks in food-borne illness in both Europe and the U.S. – such as the E.coli episode this summer in Germany (that affected some transatlantic travellers) and the U.S. scare and recall involving salmonella-infected ground turkey meat – have underscored the need for better protection and inspection of foodstuffs and other agricultural products.
But efforts to tackle the issue are encountering problems on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, funding problems have beset Congressional-mandated reforms in the U.S.
At least 13 deaths and 72 illnesses have been linked to an outbreak of listeriosis from Colorado cantaloupes, health officials say, in the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade. Three other deaths may also be related to the tainted fruit, which are linked to a farm in Holly and have been recalled. Bacteria were also found on equipment and produce at the farm's packing site in Holly, Colorado.
As cases multiply, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration face difficulties in investigating the problem because symptoms can take four weeks or more to appear in victims. The "long incubation period is a real problem," Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC said. A strengthened U.S. inspection system has been delayed by Congressional refusal to fund the measure.
The EU also is facing budget constraints as it tries to streamline and strengthen its often-unwieldy regulatory systems at the European level and at the level of member states and regions. A particularly stark example of this challenge has emerged in Washington, where budget hawks are refusing to fund the Food Safety Modernization Act recently passed by Congress but now in limbo because of the financial dispute.
Speaking about these problems and the need for safety in food and medical innovation to a
European Institute meeting on September 21, John Dalli, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, stressed the importance of adequate funding for food safety regulation. While not commenting directly on the U.S. bill, the Commissioner framed the challenge of funding safety in food and medical innovation as a cost but, more importantly, an investment that is crucial to maintaining consumer confidence and trust, including in export markets.
The same theme was trumpeted, much less diplomatically, by respected New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, whose article on September 16 called the lack of Congressional funding for the Food Safety Modernization Act a bad measure that is “a jobs killer” – and is bad for Americans’ health. He slammed “the way Republicans dealt with this,” arguing that the refusal to provide budget funds for implementing the planned new system of domestic (and overseas) inspections: there will be a boomerang cost, he said, resulting from uncertainty about food safety that will ultimately damage consumer confidence in American foodstuffs and agricultural products both in the U.S. and also in its export markets such as Europe.
In the U.S., despite the signing of the Food Safety Modernization Bill last December, the safety law has remained unfunded – in effect, simply words on paper.
In Europe, the structure is more convoluted. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) serves as a risk “assessor” – a separate and different role from risk “management.” As the risk assessor, EFSA produces scientific opinions and guidance for the European Commission in drafting food safety policy and legislation. However, EFSA is not involved in monitoring, legislating, creating or implementing safety laws. Implementation is carried out by individual member states, which 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 that resulted in delays in coping with the outbreak of E.coli. A factor in the delayed initial reaction to the E.coli outbreak in Germany was the decentralized German government system that allocates autonomy in health and food-safety regulation in each individual land (province). The responsible officials in all the länder took time in reaching consensus and as a result the provincial governors often sought at first to solve the problem on their own. European Commission urging helped produce agreement among German authorities in tracking down the origin of the bacteria. Going forward, European health authorities need to "learn to think with one brain and speak with one mouth," a European participant concluded.
On this subject, Carlos Alvarez Antolinez, Minister-Counselor for Food Safety, Health and Consumer Affairs at the EU Delegation in Washington, echoes the concern that food safety now has to be seen as a practical cross-border challenge. “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,” he stressed in a recent interview with European Affairs.
Counselor Antolinez defended the EU’s food safety structure and stated that it is “comprehensive and integrated [“farm to fork,” in EU parlance] and involves independent risk assessment and harmonized controls in all member states.” He acknowledged 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. The Commission is now reviewing a central component of existing EU legislation to improve the “effectiveness and efficiency” of current official control.
As regards the transatlantic dimension of health safety, Antolinez said that “there is already good cooperation on food safety with very frequent exchanges between the EU and U.S. administrations at many levels. However, even if, overall, both systems achieve similar levels of protection, there are also some differences in philosophy and standards in some areas.” Part of this difference comes from the U.S. tendency to promote self-monitoring whereas the EU is more centrally controlled. Despite philosophical differences, Antolinez viewed the Food Safety Modernization Act as “a good opportunity for convergence via equivalence and comparability determinations.” He also saw opportunities for growth in joint cooperation vis-à-vis developing nations on their regulation and implementation capabilities.
Lorin Speltz is Editorial Assistant at European Affairs