European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Conservative 12:31 pm, 23rd June 2000

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.