European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 11:37 am, 23rd June 2000

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.

Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on A European Food Authority (7th Report, HL Paper 66).--(The Earl of Selborne.)