European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Wilcox Baroness Wilcox Conservative 11:54 am, 23rd June 2000

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.