VUB - Law students – European Law
Speaking note Bart Staes
After the European elections in June 1999 and the installation of the Prodi-Commission one thing was abundantly clear. Our food law was in urgent need of reform. Consumers had lost confidence largely through the cumulative effect of a number of food-related crises: the illegal use of growth-hormones in livestock, the mad-cow disease, the misuse of antibiotics, the dioxine/PCB-crisis in Belgium, the unsafe use of pesticides in the fruit and vegetable sector.
David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection described the situation when he came into office as follows: “Our food law was rather like an old car, heavily modified and customised over the years to try and keep abreast of the times and of new developments. Seat belts in the back, air bags in the front, catalytic converter under the bonnet, new tyres, power steering, a re-spray or two, even a CD player where the cassette used to be.
After many years of tinkering, the old model had evolved into a peculiar looking beast far removed from its original form.
Plus its reliability was beginning to falter. Difficult to drive for all the added gadgets and gizmos; a couple of major breakdowns no wonder passengers were reluctant to get on board.
A new model was needed. Modern, streamlined, efficient, well-engineered, with a synergy of components geared towards optimum performance.”
WHITE PAPER ON FOOD SAFETY
His first task was to identify what were the gaps in the system and to propose action to plug them. This quickly led to a Food Safety Action plan published in the Commission's White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000.
This drew together, for the first time, all aspects of food safety along the food chain, from hygiene provisions to animal health, welfare and phytosanitary requirements.
Since then considerable progress has been made in implementing many of the more than 80 separate actions outlined in the White Paper.
- animal feed;
- animal health and welfare;
- hygiene, contaminants and residues;
- additives, flavourings;
EUROPEAN FOOD SAFETY AUTHORITY
The first pillar in that system was the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority.
EFSA is a cornerstone of our policy on food safety. It sees science as the essential foundation on which decisions are based. In separating risk assessment on the one side from risk management on the other, we have created a structure, which assures consumers, that all issues of food safety are properly and transparently addressed.
Commissioner Byrne adressed recently a meeting of Irish veterinarians. He said: “The path is now clear for EFSA to begin taking up the full range of its functions, including establishing its own scientific committees and panels to take over from those currently housed within the Commission. As EFSA starts to live and breathe, it will progressively seek to develop its authority and credibility. It will strengthen and co-ordinate the scientific basis of our food safety policy and provide an independent voice at EU level as far as science is concerned.
It is also important that EFSA establishes strong links and co-operates dynamically with national food safety authorities, including the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in order to create a fully effective risk communication policy.”
GENERAL FOOD LAW
The second major pillar of the EU’s approach to a modern system of food safety in the European Union was the enactment of the General Food Law. This sets out the general principles and requirements of food law and lays down the procedures that are to apply in matters of food safety for the future.
Importantly, it applies these principles and requirements to animal feed for the first time. This is particularly important as very many of the problems that emerge as food safety problems for consumers have their origins in animal feed dioxin, sludge, BSE, growth promoters, banned veterinary substances.
The regulation is based on the following principles:
- responsibility for ensuring the delivery of safe food and animal feeds belongs to the food and feed manufacturers. Unsafe foods and feed must be withdrawn;
- foodstuffs, animal feed and feed ingredients must be traceable;
- clear procedures should be established for developing food law and dealing with food emergencies;
- feeding stuffs will be covered by a Rapid Alarm System to be triggered as soon as doubts arise about their safety. The System extended existing arrangements covering food to the feed sector and feed and food imports from outside the EU. It obliges notification of any direct or indirect threat to human health, animal health or the environment.
A whole range of Commission proposals have been made, or are in the legislative process, covering the whole spectrum of food related issues food hygiene, food supplements and GM foods amongst others.
But today I want to focus on three major pillars of food safety:
-food and feed controls; and
-labelling of foodstuffs.
A SINGLE, TRANSPARENT FOOD HYGIENE POLICY
This is a major pillar of food safety and is being reordered and reorganized by a package of new regulations merging, harmonising and simplifying detailed and complicated hygiene requirements that were scattered over 17 previous Directives. Their aim is to create a single, transparent hygiene policy applicable to all food and food operators, while leaving business to decide the precise details of the safety measures needing to be taken. All food businesses have to be registered and they must accept responsibility for the safety of food.
The basic principles underpinning the new hygiene rules are threefold.
1) First the introduction of the farm to fork principle to hygiene policy to create a systematic, comprehensive hygiene regime covering all food in all sectors, replacing the current, sector specific, patchwork of rules.
2) The second principle is that food producers should bear primary responsibility for the safety of food.
3) The third principle is that all food businesses should be registered. This will allow the controlling authorities to organise better their activities, and to develop and operate risk-based control systems.
AN EU APPROACH TO FOOD AND FEED CONTROLS
The Commission is addressing the problem of the lack of coherence in present EU food legislation whose various pieces of legislation contain different approaches to the operation of official controls. Member States are being encouraged to apply an EU approach to the design and development of national control systems based on:
- clear definition of the obligations of Member States;
- clear definition of the obligations of the Commission inspection services;
- enforcement measures.
The adoption of it will improve significantly our ability to manage the food chain making it possible to ensure ever-safer food for European consumers. The proposals contain provision for criminal sanctions.
Experience has brought it home that we need to augment the current system of sanctions for failure to comply with EU food and feed laws. The Commission is proposing that we add real "teeth" to our arsenal of weapons in our fight for the legitimate interests of consumers.
Clearly, the type and gravity of sanctions will depend on the gravity of the offence in question. In some cases, criminal sanctions are necessary where serious offences are identified committed either deliberately or through gross negligence
LABELLING FOR INFORMED DECISIONS
My final topic is the labelling of foodstuffs.
The question of food labelling is of great importance for all consumers, and our legislation must satisfy their legitimate demands.
Consumers have a constantly widening range of foods to choose from and need to be able to make informed decisions. After all, what could be more reasonable than wanting to know what foods are made up of, in order to make informed decisions, in the face of an increasingly wide range of foods from which to choose?
But even more important for a sadly ever-growing number of consumers, is information about the presence of certain ingredients for health reasons: I refer here, of course, to those who suffer from food allergies or intolerances.
However, since the EU's current legal framework dates from 23 years ago, the Commission has launched an in-depth review to:
- assess whether current legislation is fully adapted to consumer's needs and expectations;
- judge whether it corresponds to the reality of trade in food in the 21st century;
- decide whether it is the best means of providing information in the global market.
An important labelling innovation expected to come into force by 2005 will abolish the "25% rule". This freed producers of the obligation to label components of compound ingredients that make up less than 25% of the final food product. In future, ingredients likely to cause allergies cannot be "hidden".
The European Parliament recently delivered, in first reading (june 2002), a positive vote with a large majority. The Council adopted its Common position on 20 February 2003. The second reading of the EP is foreseen for the June session.
I support Commissioner Byrne when he says: “Many of the building blocks towards a modern, comprehensive system of food law are now in place.
Time to say goodbye to the old car. Time to get on board this year's model. Modern, safe and reliable ready for whatever the road ahead holds in store.”
24 April 2003