My Lords, this is the first report to come before the House from the reconstituted Sub-Committee D of the European Communities Committee. That sub-committee, formed from the previously separate agriculture and environment sub-committees, has responsibility for considering European Union measures concerned with agriculture, food, the environment, consumer protection and public health. It is perhaps a remarkable coincidence or a devious design that, in fact, this report covers all those interests.
However, I assure the House that the subject was not chosen as a means of forging a common agenda within the sub-committee. Rather, this is an important measure which has been delineated in the Commission's White Paper on food safety in the European Union. It requires careful consideration by the Select Committee and by this House.
At the outset, I acknowledge the gratitude of the sub-committee to our Clerk, Mr Radice, and to our specialist adviser, Professor Philip James, who has had long experience in matters concerned with food safety and has played a major role in establishing the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency, which the House will remember started in April of this year. So we were extremely glad to be able to call on the services of our Clerk and our specialist adviser.
On a personal note, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to those members of the previous two sub-committees who gave me a very tolerant reception when I returned to the sub-committee after some years' absence.
The outline proposal for a European food authority is part of a much wider-ranging White Paper on food safety. Although our report deals specifically with the European food authority, I should first say a few words about the White Paper itself. It sets out no fewer than 84 separate measures, the first 18 of which are described as priority measures.
We were most grateful to Commissioner Byrne for meeting us and answering some of our questions when we met in Brussels. He acknowledged that the timetable for implementing the 84 measures was ambitious. We agreed with some Members of the European Parliament whom we met, including Caroline Jackson and Phillip Whitehead, who considered the timetable, respectively, as "wildly unrealistic" and an "omnium gatherum" to divert attention from the lack of focus in the main European food authority proposal. In paragraph 23 of our report we feel bound to criticise both the timetable and the lack of a clear indication of priorities. Frankly, this is not an impressive background against which to launch this new and important initiative of the European food authority.
I think everyone would accept that in recent months, and perhaps even years, the issue of food safety has become a major concern to European consumers. One only has to think of this country and the BSE crisis and, more recently, the scandal in Belgium of animal feed contaminated by dioxin. Such matters have highlighted serious deficiencies in the European Union food safety policy and in the way in which scientific advice has been marshalled to support decision-making. Clearly, something must be done if European consumers are to have greater confidence.
Everyone who gave evidence to the committee accepted the need for a more co-ordinated approach to bringing about higher standards of food safety in Europe and for European consumers. Many drew attention to the lack of consistency across member states. That is not surprising when one considers the varying levels of scientific expertise or different cultures, and perhaps different methods of addressing the issues in member states. Nevertheless, it often amounts to a failure of the Commission to make an effective contribution towards accomplishing what is desirable to achieve consistency. That is not being achieved at present.
The problems which have to be tackled by a new authority were well summarised in evidence given to us by the Consumers' Association. That is reproduced in box 1 on page 11 of the report. Of the present problems which have to be addressed, 14 are listed. I shall draw attention to only three. First, at present there is a reactive rather than a proactive approach, or, to put it another way, too little too late. Secondly, there are problems of enforcement. It is difficult, at present, to see an effective or consistent enforcement policy across the European Union. Thirdly--this is the fundamental issue--there is a general lack of confidence in the level of scientific advice available to the Commission, the Council of Ministers or to Europe as a whole.
If one considers box 1 on page 11, one has to agree with the Consumers' Association that whatever one thinks of the proposals for the European food authority, something must be done. The issues need to be addressed. There is every reason to criticise the present position, as indeed, European consumers do consistently, and correctly, I believe.
If the new authority is to be an effective initiative, it will have to be judged against two criteria. First, and most important, will it command scientific credibility of the highest order and, therefore, ultimately the respect and confidence of consumers? The White Paper refers to the new authority as aspiring to become the scientific point of reference for the whole Union. I believe we would all agree that that is a worthy aspiration. However, when we come to judge the merits of the proposals, we have to determine whether or not that is likely to be achieved.
The second criterion which we must take into account is whether a new authority will complement and add value to the work of existing national agencies. I refer, for example, to the UK Food Standards Agency and existing European Union organisations. If those two criteria were to be met, and we were satisfied that the new organisation would add scientific credibility to the debate and complement and add value to the work of national agencies and others, we would give the proposals our full support, without hesitation.
However, I have to say that at present we have a number of reservations. We do not think that sufficient thought has been given to how this scientific point of reference of the highest order can be achieved. Six serious deficiencies in the arrangements for scientific advice concerning food safety are listed in paragraph 72 of the report. I shall not go through all six but shall draw attention to two.
The first concerns expert committees. There are expert committees in member states and expert committees advising the Commission. At present, they do not interact effectively. Again, I do not have to remind noble Lords that the BSE crisis has drawn attention to that, as, indeed, have many others. It causes confusion in the minds of consumers and clearly is a failure to interact.
Secondly, I refer to the lack of an adequate scientific secretariat available to the Commission. After all, the Commission has the responsibility of managing risk and implementing the proposed measures. If the Commission does not have access to an adequate scientific secretariat, it will fall back on advice of an unknown quantity and quality. That seems to be one of the fundamental problems facing the Commission at present. Clearly, we would expect any new authority to be able to call on an adequate scientific secretariat. That does not mean to say that it has to do all the research itself. However, it has to be able to call upon a suitable secretariat in order to identify where the best advice and risk assessment can be obtained.
If the new authority is to achieve scientific credibility of the highest order, it must also ensure that it can identify where the best science is coming from. It does not really matter where in the world that is; whether from the European Union or elsewhere. It simply must know where the best advice is. We do not expect scientists to agree on the precise assessment of risk. That is not the nature of science. Science tries to measure areas which are not clearly understood. But ultimately it can and should be possible for the authority to act as a point of reference for scientific advice and ultimately to build towards a scientific consensus. We see that as the role of the authority. That is not to say that it will override the national agencies, but that it would act as the forum within which, through iterative scientific debate, a consensus can be achieved. That would be astonishingly helpful and would be exactly what European consumers would be looking for.
There are a number of models which should be looked at carefully to see how one should set up such an authority. In our report we mention, with qualification, the United States Food and Drugs Administration. Although in some respects that organisation commands a high reputation, it should be noted that it is prone to political influence. The Swedish national food administration commands a high reputation as a national agency. Other European Union agencies are not mentioned in the report but I would personally add the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products, which is based in London. Those are examples of the smooth functioning of the interface between scientific assessment and risk management.
Clearly, there are models which need to be looked at. It is important not to think that the authority should simply override other advice. The Commission refers to the guiding principles which should underpin the European food authority. We agree with its assessment, and refer in paragraph 31 to scientific excellence, independence and transparency.
One of the matters which alarmed us was that we felt there was an implication in the White Paper that the Joint Research Centre, which is effectively the in-house corporate research laboratory of the European Union, was somehow to be given an inside track. If you want scientific excellence, you have to go to the best in the world, wherever it is. If you want independence you do not go to the in-house research organisation. The record of transparency also suggests that it has to be seen that you have gone to the best in the world. I hope that we are wrong in fearing that the Joint Research Centre will be given preferential treatment.
If we recognise that building up the scientific consensus is the first and most important role on which the authority will be judged, the second area would be that of adding assistance to member states in the international dimension. By that I mean beyond the boundaries of the European Union.
The European Union is the world's largest importer and exporter of food products. Therefore, food safety becomes an important aspect of the World Trade Organisation negotiations. We feel that the authority could make a significant contribution in helping to establish uniform food standards around the world, and certainly for imports coming into the European Union. It is not clear in the White Paper what role the authority is to assume on this aspect.
The authority is to be given the role of leading on risk assessment, which is clearly a scientific role. Risk management is to remain with the Commission. This division of responsibilities is an important element of the proposals. If risk management were to be included within the powers of the authority we understand it would require an amendment to the EC Treaty. That is not the reason we agree with the Commission's proposal, because if a case is strong enough you can amend treaties, but we recognise that until this organisation gets the scientific credibility that we all hope it will, it would be unwise for it to be saddled also with responsibilities for regulation and enforcement.
That raises the question as to what its relationship will be with the existing organisations available to the Commission for surveillance, regulation and enforcement. Also it raises the question as to why it is not to have a risk management role. It is implied that the authority will be responsible--in part at least--for managing the rapid alert system. It seems to us that that is clearly a risk management function.
I mentioned risk communication earlier. That is clearly an important function of the national agencies. It is also one in which the authority should be involved. So we would hope that the agency would have the authority, and indeed the duty, to be proactive, to relate to all national organisations or others as it wished, but to give advice ultimately to the Commission and to the national agencies. Therefore, it must expect the Commission to give its full support. If the Commission backs away and does not put in place the surveillance for the enforcement required in order to achieve the necessary risk assessment, then the authority's credibility will suffer.
The Food and Veterinary Office, based in Dublin, at the moment fulfils a role of information-gathering and surveillance. Therefore, it is clearly an important component in the mechanism of achieving risk management, as well as a link between risk assessment and risk management. It is most important that there should be total transparency between the two organisations, the Food and Veterinary Office and the new authority. In fact, we go further. We would put the two together, because information-gathering and surveillance seem to us to be part of achieving adequate risk assessment.
Others may wish to speak about nutrition, which we dealt with briefly. It is a controversial issue in some ways, as indeed it was when legislation was passed in Parliament setting up the UK Food Standards Agency. Finally, let me say that we support the concept of the proposed European food authority. However, we do not think that the White Paper gives a clear enough idea as to how scientific credibility and consumer confidence in the authority are to be achieved.
The authority must be independent; it must have a culture of transparency; and above all it must demonstrate scientific excellence. It will need the appropriate scientific secretariat. That will cost a great deal more than some of the figures we have heard mentioned. We share with the Commission the aspiration to establish an authority which will become the scientific point of reference for the whole Union. We hope that the full proposals to be produced after the present round of consultation will be more explicit on how this will be achieved. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak as a member of Sub-Committee D and in support of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, our distinguished, experienced and most able chairman, who has spoken so eloquently today to the recommendations which are the unanimous recommendations of the committee. Therefore, I should like to highlight the recommendations which I have most experience of and can with a degree of confidence report to your Lordships.
For over 25 years I have been in business as a fish trader and processor and supplier to supermarket chains within and outwith the European Union. I have worked and lived in continental Europe. I have come to terms with the difficulty of our fine common law system here being at variance with the essentially Roman law system of the European Community. Therefore, it is of no surprise to me that the White Paper on food safety,
"is to ensure that Community institutions and legislation bring about a high standard of food safety for European consumers", and that the guiding principles on which the proposals are based are that,
"food safety is the overriding objective ... primary responsibility for safety lies with producers, manufacturers, retailers and other operators ... there must be a comprehensive and integrated approach to food law, covering the whole of the food chain 'from farm to table' ... all inputs to the food chain should be transparent and traceable ... controls must operate consistently across all Member States".
Who could not agree with that set of admirable objectives? Certainly not I.
I support the idea of a European food authority, as outlined. But, as so often in the European Union, this is an "aspirational" paper, something to sign up to in a spirit of co-operation and comradeship, not something to have cold water thrown over by British pragmatism or held up by our annoying, exasperating British habit of wanting to know: will it actually work; what is a rapid alert system; who is going to make it work; who is going to manage the rapid alert system? And the proposal will be slowed down by our insistence that these matters and the mechanisms to support them should be decided at the outset.
As we point out in our general conclusions:
"The White Paper leaves unresolved a number of questions, not least on the status and powers of the proposed European Food Authority. Although in general we support the concept of the Authority, in our opinion the proposal stands or falls on whether the EFA, as constituted, can be given the resources and powers to enable it to establish a track record in scientific excellence ... and to develop rapidly an effective monitoring and surveillance capability".
As an international trader, I can see that politically and globally that will be viewed with enormous suspicion. In my view, the United States will immediately view it as a trade war; and the United States has already been rocked by the use of our European precautionary principle.
With regard to genetically modified grains, there was the thoughtless granting of permission--without consultation with the consumer DG in the European Union--by the European Union to the Monsanto Corporation to sell unsegregated grain in the European Union. The outcry that followed from the consumer groups, faced with a food industry that was unable to label food that identified the GM ingredients, has had huge repercussions. The American consumer groups are now looking at what they have been eating since 1985, when the FDA, on their much simpler system of equivalents, passed GM foods into the nation's system. "If it looks like a carrot; if it smells like a carrot; if it tastes like a carrot; then it is a carrot", is not the system we use with the precautionary principle. Ours says that, "It may look like a carrot; it may smell like a carrot; it may taste like a carrot; but has the genetic base been altered?" If it has, we proceed with all caution; a system which I very much applaud.
If this authority is to be well viewed and trusted on the world stage, scientific excellence must be its overriding goal and the best of the world's scientists should not be excluded. They should be encouraged, invited and welcomed to help us to deliver the scientific work of the authority.
As for national enforcement--already referred to by my noble friend Lord Selborne--I have seen and worked with our zealous enforcement of directives in this country. After all, we are the country which reported itself for having dirty water--you cannot get more clever at enforcement than that! But we have to be careful in this area. I have seen in the time I have worked in the European Union how little enforcement is in evidence. Some countries, and certainly some of our warmer-country partners, to my despair, have flouted so many laws that it has made trading with them almost impossible.
Our common law system leads to a general recognition and approval of enforcement. But the continental system seems to recognise much more the fallen nature of the human race. It feels it is natural to pass laws to which it aspires, and the area of enforcement therefore becomes uneven. As we have already heard, it is an aspect about which the report expresses grave concern.
In recent years I leapt the counter and became chairman of the National Consumer Council, and am now president of the National Federation of Consumer Groups. Therefore for me, nowadays, regaining consumer confidence and trust, certainly in the British food chain, is extremely important. I would be delighted if that were recognised within the new food authority. I have great hopes of that, particularly if the EFA is set up to the same standard as our own independent Food Standards Agency. That would be an excellent start.
Wherever possible, the more clear information we can obtain for consumers the better able they will be to make an informed choice. I understand that people may see the proposal on nutrition as being very much a "nannying" proposal, almost a "big brother" proposal. But I am concerned about some of the novel foods that are coming into our system, particularly those being bought by the young. But the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, will speak on that area so I shall say no more in that regard.
The big question people ask is, "What is the risk to me of eating this food and using this product?". If the new authority is to be successful, the assessment, management and, above all, communication of information to the consumer is vitally important. I should like the authority to be able to communicate directly with people.
Finally, there should be transparency and openness. It is my hope that we in this country will soon have a freedom of information Act and a presumption of openness. It has been infuriating for me over the past 10 years, when it is written that I should be able to look at any papers I wish and ask any questions I want, to go to the Commission and find that there are no papers; they cannot be found; and it is weeks and months before we can obtain any information. I hope therefore that the new authority will start as it means to go on; that is, setting a standard and, wherever possible, showing openness.
These proposals for a European food authority raise important questions. I have been able to touch on but a few. We now have an opportunity within the European Union to aspire to the highest ideals of food safety. But with new members joining us who are light years away from the best practice and the best science already achieved in some of our member states and who will need enormous help and support, achievement of those aims will depend on the political will on the part of member states and the Commission. Otherwise, I fear that this exercise will prove to be an expensive waste of time.
My Lords, this House should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for bringing before us this report on the Commission's White Paper on food safety. Having been concerned with food safety in an earlier part of my life, the report is particularly pertinent and of interest to me.
Of course, food and its safety are essential issues in the daily lives of us all. But safety can be compromised at numerous points along the food chain, from the basic supply (the farmer, for example) through manufacturing and retailing to the table or kitchen, and finally to the dinner plate. Hence surveillance and enforcement at all those stages is increasingly complicated.
The food chain is complex and made even more so by the fact that we now have a global market. Whereas production methods may be adequate in this country and the European Union, that may not be so for food coming from elsewhere. Nor can health standards be amenable to inspection or, indeed, to enforcement to the same level that exists within the European Union. For example, the attractively packaged soft fruit from distant lands may bear unseen burdens of noxious agents due to irrigation or washing with water contaminated by sewage. That has been found to be an important issue in the United States with materials from central and South America.
Despite the establishment of food standards authorities in several European Union member states, all purporting to aim at a high level of safety, there is nevertheless a clear need for harmonisation of procedures and methodologies used and for a transparent and open regulatory system. It is also important to be clear what the food standards authority will be responsible for--clear not only at the top end, to the administrators and directors, but also at the bottom end to those who will be at the cutting edge of safeguarding the food chain, the food inspectors, the meat inspectors and so forth.
The White Paper states that food safety is the overriding objective. Hence, there should be an avoidance of issues that have no direct relevance to food safety, even though in themselves they are important. For example, I am the last person to negate the importance of animal welfare in general, but I do not believe it is an important issue when considering food safety. Other examples are nutrition and food quality. I can assure your Lordships that decision making at the bottom end, on issues of safety, can become extremely clouded if nutrition and quality have to be part of the assessment. Similarly, environmental issues are not directly related. Nor, for that matter, are issues relating to genetically modified organisms. For those reasons I support the opinion expressed in paragraph 108 that,
"the EFA's role should ... be primarily focused on food safety", and subject to close liaison with the Food and Veterinary Office as expressed in paragraph 104.
A further important reason why it should focus its interest is that there is already an abundance of food safety issues to be addressed; and if scientific excellence is "the overriding goal", as stated in paragraph 116, then in-depth concentration on those factors must be the goal in collaboration with other agencies.
I give an example of such an issue. The food chain is well recognised as the source of enteric infections, particularly antibiotic-resistant organisms, which can cause either direct illness as a result of, for example, resistant salmonella, or indirectly by passing on antibiotic resistance to the commensal organisms in the human intestine which is then passed on to noxious or harmful organisms. But we do not know the extent of this environmental pool of resistant organisms. We have no quick test for detecting it, and we cannot detect it in food or meat inspection.
Following the House of Lords Select Committee report on resistance to antibiotics, which I had the honour to chair, there has been very useful action by the Department of Health and other agencies, the World Health Organisation and the Copenhagen Declaration. There is to be set up a new expert advisory committee on antimicrobial resistance. The over-arching committee, which was recommended 30 years ago by the Swann Committee, and reiterated by the recent Select Committee report on antibiotic resistance, is now being established and will, I am sure, perform a very useful service.
This is an example of excellence being combined with surveillance and a detailed knowledge of, for example, antibiotic resistance. An important point to be considered is the surveillance of food safety. The development of quick and accurate detection tests in collaboration with some well known agencies, such as the Public Health Laboratory Service surveillance unit and the World Health Organisation, should provide a very effective, in-depth and well regarded scientific approach--an approach characterised by scientific excellence.
Finally, I turn to the question of consumer confidence in the field of food safety and the regulation of it, which has sadly slipped in recent years. However, I believe that it can be regained, based on top class science, whatever its source, adequate peer review, publication of such science and a transparency of the work and the implications of the work that has been taking place. I believe that at that point consumer confidence will return.
My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Selborne for his excellent chairmanship of our Committee. He was firm but fair, which are the ideal attributes of a chairman. I also join with him in thanking our clerk, Mr Radice, and our professional specialist scientific adviser, Professor James, who was so normal and level headed that I quite forgot that he was a scientist. This is a well balanced report. In view of the conflicting evidence, it was difficult to get something as sound as has been produced by my noble friend Lord Selborne. A number of different views were expressed about food safety, which I found rather confusing and conflicting.
The background Muzak to our inquiry was the loss of consumer confidence in food and food regulation in Europe and in this country, as noted by my noble friend Lord Soulsby. It was felt that the public need more scientific advice and more regulation before they can safely put food into their mouths. We heard evidence from LACOTS that we need to harmonise the implementation and enforcement of food laws. Other witnesses wanted improved systems of pan- European regulation. A group named "Scientists for Labour" said:
"An authoritative transnational body is obviously required in Europe to enforce and police standards, to ensure co-ordination of food safety policy between Member States".
Another witness, Sustain, was bang up to the minute with a demand for,
"innovative things like citizens' juries, consensus conferences, stakeholder dialogues ... (and) focus groups".
This is exciting, advanced thinking. But I think that we already have some citizens' juries.
One has only to look outside to see the evidence. There are Bunteresque masses of people stuffing their faces with food on streets, planes, buses, trains, pavements, cinemas and theatres. People are, as never before, eating burgers, frankfurters, pizzas, chocolate, ice cream, sandwiches, and even the deadly doner kebab--which is quite acceptable as long as one knows who the "donor" is! Therefore, I see no pent up demand for consumer conferences or indeed for stakeholder dialogue, unless the word "stakeholder" is spelt rather differently.
The demand for more regulatory bodies seems to come from consumer organisations and special interest pressure groups which need to believe, and need to make others believe, that there is indeed a crisis in consumer confidence. In this respect, I include the Commission, which in its White Paper states:
"Public confidence in food safety is badly affected by food alerts and crises".
Exactly so. It is all too often the case that hyped alarms and crises affect people rather than the food itself.
Where is the evidence that people believe that food is unsafe? I see very little evidence; indeed, rather to the contrary. We have compelling evidence from the British Hospitality Association. Its members serve nearly 9 billion meals a year without any serious illness among the people who consume all that food. If food is seen as such a risk, why is eating out now such a growth area? Why cannot one get a table at a restaurant? Why are more and more restaurants opening all the time? These matters are not at all consistent with the arguments that there is a massive crisis in consumer confidence.
In Britain--more statistics, I am afraid--people eat about 60 billion meals per year, of which about 200 people die from food-related diseases, including CJD. That suggests to me that there is a far greater risk of being killed or injured by a police car on one's way to dinner than actually eating that dinner. Surely we ought to retain a sense of proportion about this before calling for yet another food authority and another layer of bureaucracy, at vast expense and with probably little gain, except to the army of scientists, regulators, lawyers and bureaucrats, whose jobs, salaries, pensions and research grants often depend on the illusion of maintaining a spectre of food scares.
It seems to me that there is a food scare industry, just as there is a human rights industry, which is largely self-referential. Both are dependent upon persuading the public that another layer of expensive legal bureaucracy is vital to the freedom and safety of the individual. Indeed, they do not seem to have any regard to the reality which can be seen on the streets to the individual or to the industries that are involved.
An illustration of that can be found in the Meat Hygiene Service, which is busy destroying the perfectly worthwhile industry of raw meat. We have had compelling evidence that there is no risk from raw meat, as everyone seems to realise, because raw meat is cooked. But this is now at European level. This British Government seem powerless to change it. When anyone complains about it, we are told that we are merely fulfilling our treaty obligations. Under the guise of treaty obligations, a whole industry is being knocked on the head. I am nervous about the introduction of a European food authority which will give more power to more people to do exactly the same thing over a much wider field.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the various food scares of the past few years. We had the Edwina Currie salmonella sensation; listeria in cheese; cancer in Perrier water; and, of course, the beef-on-the-bone fiasco, which encouraged many people to break the law because everyone realised that the Government were talking absolute rubbish. These are just examples of the classic scares, which did not, I believe, cause any deaths in particular.
We then had the unfortunate Barr case in Scotland, with E-coli, as a result of which, sadly, people did die. There was also the Belgian dioxin scare, where no one died. Those cases were due to the failure of the existing regulations and systems and did not in any way demonstrate the need for something different. The inspectorate that dealt with the Barr incident was at fault, as was Mr Barr, the butcher involved. Such incidents do not call for a new system; they call for existing systems to be much better implemented.
Therefore, I respectfully ask noble Lords: why do we need another layer of expensive bureaucracy, when all the evidence suggests that we do not need one? The Commission's White Paper states that,
"the European food chain is one of the safest in the world".
If that is the case--hooray! But why do we need something else? It does not seem to me that the case has yet been made.
In its written evidence to us, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said:
"It is a fundamental principle that greatest management control and highest accountability and consumer assurance are achieved when the points of control and assurance are located close to the processes that need to be controlled".
I am in absolute agreement with that view. In its White Paper, the Commission says:
"Greater transparency at all levels is the golden thread throughout the White Paper".
But, as I believe our special adviser, Professor James, so sensibly observed, the Commission would not recognise transparency if it fell over it. He did not actually say those words, he said:
"Commission officials literally do not understand the process of transparency".
It seems transparent to me that the case has not remotely been made out for handing over more power to the Commission. Consumers are already very well protected by UK food law and by World Health Organisation surveillance programmes. Until it has been established that a European food authority would seriously add value to consumer safety, I believe that the idea should be quietly shelved. The Commission should be reminded of the wise words of its past president; namely, that it should do less but do it better.
My Lords, the one area where, as a member of the sub-committee, I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, our chairman. He had the quite difficult task of, first, bringing together a new committee and getting us all to work together; and, secondly, addressing what ended up as a very wide-ranging topic encompassing not only our attitudes to food but also the structures of the EU and how they work. I should very much like to thank the noble Earl for never quelling opinion but enabling us to focus in such a way that I believe we have produced a report which deals well with the questions raised by this topic and which voices some very worthwhile observations that I hope both the Government and the EU will find useful.
However, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, in his view that there is no need for such an authority even to be considered. The fact is that the production, processing and distribution of food have changed dramatically and are continuing to do so at an ever-increasing rate. It is the new technologies, new production methods and the new ways of feeding livestock that have produced disasters like the BSE crisis and engendered tremendous concerns, such as those relating to GM technology, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. Public concerns about what people are eating and how safe it is do exist.
As the noble Lord pointed out, the quality, quantity and choice of food available suggests that the public should be very happy: but the fact is they are not. People have become suspicious about the science behind the testing of these new methods of production. They are suspicious that, at a national level, science has become politicised. I believe that there is a gap to be filled here and one that the EU is ideally placed to fill.
The EFA should, as we firmly state in the report, be in the business of gathering the best of scientific opinion; it should not be in the process of reinventing the wheel. It should produce scientific opinion as to risk assessments that is reliable and consistent. That would be an excellent first step for it. It is an area of work where people in this country and in other European countries will easily see the point of having a champion for their concerns--not only for their domestic market but also to ensure that the European food market is seen as a place of safety, not of risk, worldwide. I shall return later to the point about the EFA's place in the world trade context.
If the EFA is to fulfil that role, it is important that the accountability between it and the European Parliament is strong. If the EFA is simply a creature of the Commission with no lines of accountability, it will be likely to be viewed as distant, remote and, therefore, less trustworthy. Our committee's opinion is that there may not be formal accountability and that there needs to be close, well-developed links between the European Parliament, its MEPs and the EFA. We say that that relationship should be constructive and positive and avoid the sort of reactive stance that can develop--and, indeed, has developed historically in many areas--between the Commission and MEPs.
There is also an opportunity in the EFA's ability to report on enforcement implementation, which would include work on one of the most high-profile bad aspects of public perception of the food industry in Europe. I believe that Caroline Jackson, MEP, hit the nail on the head when she explained how important it was that there should be continuous dialogue between the European Parliament and the EFA. As she put it:
"MEPs must provide answers to the problem that all MEPs encountered at the last European election. Our electors now know that EU laws are not applied in the same way everywhere and they want something done about it".
MEPs do have to account for that fact and, in turn, they should be accounted to.
I turn to the question of laws not being evenly applied, which was especially evident in the area of risk management. It is an area with which our committee grappled hard. I have in mind the difficult issue of where national responsibility should lie for risk management and enforcement. We were quite clear that, at a national level, risk management must be undertaken and that, once a risk has been assessed, the weight of evidence pointed to the fact that risk management should occur at a national level. Although enforcement should happen at that level, we felt that the EFA must be able to highlight failures of enforcement--a particularly important point. The ability of the EFA to communicate its opinion on risk assessment to all citizens in Europe is crucial if it is to prove worth while. In response to the concerns in this country, we have made the move to establish our own Food Standards Agency, which is very welcome. Producers and government are beginning to accept the demand for clearer, more informative labelling.
We have heard that only eight of the 15 member states have set up, or have firm plans to set up, food agencies. With further expansion of the EU, it is very likely that more member states will benefit from having an EFA. There are those who might say that there is little benefit for those states like ours which already have an agency. But I do not believe that to be the case. There are two reasons why we should be enthusiastic about this proposal.
First, we need a strong European voice in the global context. Given the level of imports and exports, as mentioned by our chairman, the time must have come when it is essential to establish a European food authority. Our inquiry found the case for the authority especially strong, so that the EU would have a means of a strong input into the Codex Alimentarius--that rather invisible, but all-powerful body that determines what happens in a global food trade. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, there continues to be a wide difference of opinion between Europe and the United States on what is safe in some areas; for example, the use of hormones. Europe definitely needs a strong body of collective scientific opinion so that we can test our concerns scientifically and not be accused of reacting on the grounds of fear that may be founded or unfounded. The export of food is of enormous importance to the EU economy. We need a body to ensure that food produced by the EU is known to be of a consistently high standard.
One of the committee's debates related to the role that the EFA would play in the nutrition aspects of food safety. The remit of the EFA is to deal with food safety. We grappled both long and hard with how wide the definition of "safety" should be. It is clear that a poor diet or a bad diet can be a killer, albeit in the longer term. With the increase in the use of novel foods, foods that may contain nothing that we would traditionally recognise as food but a complex mixture of artificially created substances, we need to have an authority that looks at the long-term effects of eating such "food" and at the effect of a "cocktail" of such substances. There is some public awareness developing around the relationship between the consumption, for example, by children of fizzy drinks and behaviour problems. These kinds of effects will need much further exploration in the future.
The committee heard from Dr Godfrey, who is the vice-chairman of the Consumers in Europe Group. He said:
"I do not take the view that [food] safety is more important than public health; if you are going to tackle the issues which are really important to the people of Europe then you cannot leave outside of consideration the problems of food nutrition and health".
I very much share that view but I can understand why we as a committee reached the conclusion that we did. Given the amount of work that a newly established EFA would have, we came to the rather more cautious opinion that the EFA should deal with nutrition issues only to the extent that they have implications for food regulation policy and that other aspects should be given separate and careful consideration by the Commission. I believe that President Prodi's original vision of an authority that had a wider remit will come to be recognised as a good but long-term aim. In the short term I can live with our committee's conclusion.
Overall, I find the proposal to create a European food authority to bring together the best of scientific advice and expertise in an area that concerns the public so greatly is an exciting one. I hope that the issues highlighted by our sub-committee as potential areas of difficulty will be a stepping stone to producing an accountable, useful and respected EFA.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Selborne and his committee on an admirable report. Let me immediately add to that my appreciation of my noble friend's equally admirable introduction to this debate, which set out the key issues so concisely. It may sound unoriginal to say this but it is none the less true: this is a report which deserves to be read and reread by all those to whom it is addressed, not only by government but also by the European Commission and Members of the European Parliament. It is a veritable model of sound analysis and common sense.
After those eulogies I must confess that in the first instance I approached the notion of a European food authority in a mood of a priori scepticism. A good deal of that feeling was rooted in the fact that the Commission's White Paper has something of the look of a Swiss cheese about it. Proposals presented with so many significant lacunae and with so little detail fleshed out are inclined to make one fear the worst. The potential for creating a new EU body with all the attributes that we would deplore--bureaucratic, intrusive, duplicatory, ineffectual--is apparent to those of a somewhat fearful disposition.
That need not happen, as the report points out, provided there is the political will to avoid it. Perhaps the two key questions that need to be asked at the outset are: what is the mischief to be addressed; and what is the added value that the new body will bring? The mischief is not properly analysed in the White Paper but it is clearly set out by the committee. Many people would start with the thought that on the large issues of food safety--those with an international dimension--the European Commission has not in the past shown itself to be as joined up or as effective as we would wish it to be. As my noble friend Lord Selborne pointed out, the dioxins scandal exemplified an apparent inability to respond rapidly to a crisis. Certainly the Commission is not regarded by consumers as a body that either involves them in the formulation of EU food policy or communicates meaningfully with them. Nor is it seen as transparent in the way that it takes policy decisions.
So the case for an EFA rests essentially on a need for improved confidence. An EFA is not, and should never be, an excuse to increase the power of the Commission but rather a means of making the Commission more effective in fulfilling its existing functions. One of those functions is that of overseer of the proverbial level playing field. In food issues, the level playing field is not, of course, solely--or even primarily--a competition issue. It is an issue of consumer safety. What the report rather endearingly refers to as,
"the probability of continuing asymmetry between member states in their national arrangements for implementing and enforcing EU food safety law", makes it essential that there is effective regulation and guidance at Commission level. That is especially true with the prospect ahead of us of an enlarged Union. Aspirant countries need to have in place legislation, standards and procedures that are uniform in relation to food manufacturing and food imports.
In the single market, any food imported into the EU and passed as safe by the receiving country can be traded freely thereafter. So the safeguards for European consumers on third country products are only as strong as those that are applied wherever the food is checked upon its entry to the EU. I share the view of the committee that promoting uniform standards would be one of the main tasks for a new EFA. I agree also that there needs to be an effective input by the EU into the Codex Alimentarius which is nowadays an absolutely vital facilitator of world trade.
This, then, points to an EFA which is capable not just of thinking and acting in a proactive way--it certainly involves that--but also of anticipating new developments and practices in the food chain and understanding the science behind them. If those tasks are to be performed effectively, an EFA must have the necessary degree of public confidence--in other words, living up to its name as an authority. That means the EU being careful to endow the EFA with only those powers and responsibilities--no more and no less--which it needs to fulfil its remit. But the lynchpin of all that, as the committee stresses time and again, is the need to ensure that the EFA is a repository of unbiased scientific excellence. Without that, it is nothing. Indeed, without that, it is not even worth beginning to think about it.
Comparisons are difficult, but my suggestion is that in time it should aspire to the same level of international esteem as that enjoyed by the US Food and Drugs Administration. But its role should remain that of expert adviser. It must contribute to political decision-making but be kept apart from it. It must forge close links with food agencies in member states but not undermine or duplicate them. In member states without adequate standards or administrative structures, it must feed off best practice elsewhere in the Union.
Establishing its reputation as the authoritative "single voice" for food safety, in the words of Commissioner Byrne, will take time. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to the barriers that need to be overcome. I simply add, as one or two witnesses to the committee pointed out, that there is all the difference in the world between a body with the highest possible scientific credentials and one which is capable of communicating its findings in a way that is easily intelligible to lay people as well as to other scientists. So the skill of the EFA in communicating effectively will need to be built at several levels. Equally, the process of risk assessment--one of the authority's key tasks--will be quite distinct from mechanisms to ensure that the process is transparent. That is separate again from the process of effective risk communication. From personal experience in MAFF as a former Minister, I share the committee's conclusion that the EFA should be open about minority opinions and be free to communicate risk to whatever audience it chooses.
My noble friend argued persuasively about the function of risk management. One obvious area of discussion will be the role played by the EFA in the enforcement of food safety law. For it to do so directly would require a change in the treaty and would not, I think, be acceptable to member states. What it can and should do, however--here I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer--is to be in a position to highlight failures in enforcement. It is a feature of the EU, as I found even during my time as a MAFF Minister, that information about the implementation of EU law in other member countries is extremely difficult to obtain. MAFF was reliant on asking our embassies to carry out ad hoc inquiries, which, although conducted diligently enough, were seldom able to provide Ministers with more than an anecdotal picture. That needs to change. If we in Britain are suspicious of what may or may not be happening across the Channel, the suspicions are no doubt mutual. A surveillance and monitoring remit for the EFA, provided that it does not duplicate systems in member states, would go a long way to removing an insidious barrier against international trust.
One of the committee's conclusions that I am less sure about is the section of paragraph 61 which suggests that the EFA's credibility will depend on the Commission's willingness to act on its advice. Perhaps it will in part. I do not share the fear that, otherwise, the authority will be seen as responsible for the Commission's failure to act. The authority and standing of the European Court of Auditors do not seem to be undermined to any great extent by any perceived foot dragging on the part of the Commission in relation to EU fraud and waste. It may be relevant to note in passing that there are close links between the European Court of Auditors and the various committees of the European Parliament which oversee budgetary and financial issues--a model perhaps for the EFA.
I started by expressing some scepticism. So far as concerns the theory, the committee has succeeded largely in dispelling that scepticism. The rub lies in the way that the proposals are put into practice; they have to work. My noble friend has provided valuable pointers to making the new authority both practical and credible; I very much hope that the committee's conclusions will find favour with the Government.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the Select Committee on the European Union on holding their inquiry into the European food authority and for bringing forward this debate on their report today. As the noble Earl suggested, it is the first report of the reconstituted Sub-Committee D; I hope that it will be the first of many. I wish to pay tribute to the noble Earl and to the members of the committee, many of whom have spoken today. We have had a high quality debate.
The issues in relation to food safety and public confidence go very wide, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, suggested. I am glad to pay tribute to him and the work that his committee undertook in relation to antibiotic resistance. That is a good reflection of the influence your Lordships' committees are having in these very important areas.
There is no doubt that today's debate and the committee's report will be important contributions to the overall debate and great aids to the Government in their deliberations once the proposals are issued by the Commission in October. They are also very helpful in relation to the need to improve public confidence in food issues.
I listened with great care to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, as he recounted to us the enormous appetite of people living in this country. When he referred to 60 billion meals a year, I began to feel rather hungry. I am sure that other noble Lords felt the same. As a health Minister, I became rather alarmed when I realised that the "Healthier Nation" targets in relation to people's weight may prove to be more challenging than they are already.
I understand the substantive point, made by the noble Lord, that he wishes to avoid, if you like, another set of arrangements which may be piled on to current arrangements. However, notwithstanding the happy and healthy appetites of the British people, there is concern, too, among the public in relation to food safety issues, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, pointed out. We have to address those issues of public confidence.
There is no doubt that the committee's report cogently addresses the multiplicity of views heard in evidence and a wide range of issues. The Government's response to the report will be available shortly after this debate.
As the committee appreciated, and as has been demonstrated in this debate, the Commission's proposal for a European food authority, as set out in its White Paper on food safety, raises a good many questions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, the present proposals, while addressing the fundamentals, are silent on much of the detail. It will be interesting to see how the Commission reconciles the many different comments it will receive from different countries. Certainly, the Government have submitted their owns views to the Commission, which, in advance of greater detail, set out our main suggestions and points of concern. These are very similar to many of the issues raised by the committee.
Before commenting on the authority, I should touch briefly on the action plan set out in the White Paper. It is certainly an ambitious programme, as the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said--perhaps even over-ambitious. The Commission recognises this. But the document contains a number of measures on which the Government have been seeking action for some time--such as the consolidation of hygiene directives and a radical review of food labelling rules--and, in this light, we await more detailed individual proposals being brought forward by the Commission.
In due deference to the suspicions of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I should point out that we do not regard all of the Commission's proposals as of equal weight. While our overriding concern has to be the protection of public health, we shall also be scrutinising each individual proposal against the criteria of need and proportionality. If I am to take one theme alone away from the debate today, it is the issue of proportionality.
Of course, the proposed establishment of an authority has its critics--indeed, if I may say so, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, was an eloquent critic--but, apart from the principle, some of those criticisms may be due to a lack of detail, a matter to which I have already referred. Certainly, it is clear that there are some who consider that the proposals do not go far enough; others consider that there may not be a need at all for a European body, suggesting that the rationalisation of existing Commission services might produce better results. However, it is clear that there is an urgent need to review structures which have evolved over the past 30 years. I accept the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in relation to consistency.
Given the importance of protecting consumer health, it is important to welcome the proposal to draw existing responsibilities together in a new, independent EU body. I stress the words "existing responsibilities". In the light of what I and other noble Lords have said, we do not expect that this will involve creating any new competencies or transferring responsibility away from member states.
I also accept that such a body must be open and transparent and that it must provide the best scientific advice possible, utilising all available expertise, but I share the concerns that it must be careful not to duplicate work performed effectively elsewhere. It is particularly important that such advice is not based solely on in-house science--a point emphasised in the report. We share the committee's anxiety on that. I shall return to that issue in a moment.
There are number of unresolved questions about the proposed authority which are reflected in the committee's report and the Government's response, and I should like to reflect on the main issues.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, referred to the relationship between risk management, risk assessment and risk communication. In its report, the committee accepted that, for the present, there should be a clear division of responsibility, with risk assessment going to the authority and risk management staying with the Commission, along with regulation and enforcement. It also recognised that there should be a close two-way interaction across the divide. This point was among those of particular concern to the Government, as reflected in their response to the Commission.
We agree that legislation should remain with the Council and with the European Parliament. The implied division of the official/technical level functions of risk assessment and risk management between the authority and the Commission is, however, felt by the UK to be the least satisfactory aspect of the Commission's proposals. The Government believe that coherence in the processes of risk analysis is vitally important if policy decisions are to be properly based on sound science and public confidence is to be maintained and enhanced.
I accept that part of the difficulties may have stemmed from different understandings of the terminology. What is absolutely clear is that we must avoid compartmentalisation of the different parts of the task of risk analysis. That could result in risk managers proposing legislation or other controls not firmly based on science or, on the other side of the coin, risk assessors, in giving their opinion, taking no account of the solutions risk managers can practically and effectively apply to safeguard consumer health.
At the end of the day, risk management, risk assessment and risk communication are not individual "steps" but are part of a complex interactive risk analysis process. Certainly, as was pointed out so clearly by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, the separation of these activities between different EU bodies will require effective co-ordination mechanisms to ensure that policy decisions are based on sound science. Therefore, as the committee identified, there needs to be close and effective communication between the authority and the Commission.
The authority should at the very least be able--or perhaps even be required--to identify practical solutions and options and make recommendations on courses of action. We have suggested that the Commission should then be obliged to respond in each case by explaining what action it proposes to take. It seems that the Commission is receptive to these ideas and we hope that that will to some extent be reflected in its forthcoming proposals.
Perhaps I may turn to the question of the provision of scientific advice. Several important points have been made by noble Lords. I was interested in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who, from her experience in business, spoke of the credibility of what is proposed depending on scientific advice being of the highest quality. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, also raised a number of important issues, including the need for a high quality scientific secretariat.
The Government firmly believe that the proposed European food authority must be able to draw on and represent the best scientific advice available. An existing structure of scientific committees is of course in place; those committees report to the Commission. It is envisaged that they will fall within the remit of the authority. We accept that it is essential that they are well structured and adequately supported by a strong secretariat which can properly frame requests for advice so that the scientific considerations can fully inform and--dare I say?--be understood by policy makers. I also agree with the point made about effective communication with the public. Such scientific advice has to be made available to the wider public in a clear and comprehensible way.
The committee has commented on the authority's remit. Its view matches the UK's response in that we would not wish this to be too widely extended. We see a role for the authority in labelling issues, acting as a source of scientific data on nutrition matters and encouraging co-operation on nutrition issues between member states. But we do not believe that the remit should extend to healthy eating advice or to responsibilities for subjects such as environmental protection or animal welfare. We think that those matters should be dealt with as policy areas in their own right. Those aspects are covered in more detail in the response to the Commission.
I now turn to another important matter; namely, the relationship of the proposed authority with the UK's Food Standards Agency. Again, I share the consensus apparent in our debate today. The European authority must add value to the work of other authorities, but it must not duplicate the work of those other authorities. Arising from that are questions of how it would relate with the UK Food Standards Agency; whether the authority would be able to overrule national agencies; and, indeed, whether it would ultimately make our own agency redundant. I should like to respond very firmly to that final point. The establishment of an authority will not make our own agency redundant.
There is a substantive difference in the proposed remit of the authority and that of the UK's agency. The Food Standards Agency encompasses risk assessment, risk management and risk communication on all food safety issues. It deals with compositional and quality standards, animal feed, nutrition and diet advice, food authenticity, surveillance and enforcement. That is a much wider scope of responsibilities than those proposed for the European authority.
Perhaps the best way to view the role of the European food authority is that essentially it will improve the arrangements for co-ordinating food safety at the European level, with individual member states retaining responsibility for implementing the necessary measures and controls within their own territories. In terms of the authority's ability to overrule the opinions of national agencies and scientific experts, as the committee is already aware, no such formal rule has been proposed. We see the role of the authority as one of aiding consensus on difficult or divisive issues rather than acting as an arbiter or pressing its own views on member states.
While the relationship between the proposed authority and agencies in member states is not clearly defined in the Commission's communication, we do expect any recommendations from the authority to be based on full consultation and careful analysis of the best available scientific information. It is obvious, given that scientific opinion can rarely be stated with 100 per cent confidence, that there will be scope for disagreement or differences of opinion. We should not run away from that. However, with active collaboration with agencies and authorities in member states, the scope for such instances might be reduced.
In this regard, the Commission has proposed some form of network between the authority and national authorities. That is eminently sensible in order to tap the wealth of expertise and resources resident in member states, as well--I return to the point I made earlier--as avoiding duplication of effort.
Many other issues were raised in the debate. I apologise to noble Lords if I am unable to respond to every one, but a number of points were made to which I should like to refer. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, asked what model should be adopted by the European food authority. He suggested that the Commission should look at successful models already in existence. We share that view and we understand that the Commission has expressed an interest in the UK's own Food Standards Agency.
Several questions were raised as regards transparency and openness. I have already said that I very much share the opinion that, if the authority is to sustain credibility within the Community and in this country, openness in relation to its functions and communications to the public as well as to agencies in member states is absolutely vital. It is a matter on which we shall keep a close eye.
The Commission is currently considering all the comments that have been received on the authority from member states and other interested parties. It is also awaiting the European Parliament's opinion which, I understand, is not expected until October. We therefore expect to see a detailed proposal from the Commission around the end of October, on which detailed and more focused discussion can take place. We await the Commission's proposals with interest. There is no question that the handling of food safety issues is of great importance to this Government. It was for that very reason that we established the Food Standards Agency.
This has been an interesting and informed debate. We shall take into consideration all the points that have been raised, as well as the substantive points raised in the committee's report.
I conclude by once again thanking the noble Earl and the sub-committee members for the splendid job that they undertook in producing not only a very informative report but one that can be clearly understood in an area which is often not necessarily so clear.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful response. Indeed, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. If nothing else, I believe that we have demonstrated that within the committee we have the ability, indeed the inclination, to challenge every concept that is put to us from different standpoints. I hope the House will agree that the fact that we produced a unanimous report demonstrates that we have achieved a consensus among ourselves. In asking the EFA to achieve a scientific consensus, we are asking it to do what scientists have clearly failed to do thus far; indeed they disagree radically.
I make the point to my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke that those who are dubious about how an EFA can add value have only to look at the inconsistency between the advice of the highly regarded UK Food Standards Agency and that of the national organisation in France, which apparently has two quite different scientific views about the safety of British beef. There may be good political reasons for that, which we all understand, but there simply cannot be good scientific reasons. That is why we need a forum in which scientists can test the science objectively. Ultimately, science should not be dictated by policy; policy-makers involved in other considerations may fail to take risk assessment into account.
We were delighted that my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior was able to speak in the debate. He was the one Back-Bencher to do so who was not a member of the committee. I congratulate my noble friend on his contribution. I congratulate him also on the fact that today is his birthday.