European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:21 pm on 23rd June 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 12:21 pm, 23rd June 2000

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.