News 30.11.2018

Debate: How can the EU protect citizens from food scandals?

  • Transparency and food safety

Debate: How can the EU protect citizens from food scandals?

On the 16th October, PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a debate on the question of food safety in Europe with Mr Michael Scannell, Director, Food Chain, Stakeholders and International Relations, European Commission, DG SANTE and Mr Thilo Bode, Executive Director, foodwatch. The debate was moderated by Joanna Sullivan, CEO at Conscience consulting.

Joanna Sullivan introduced the topic of the discussion and remarked the importance of food safety for EU citizens’ lives. Consequently, she introduced the matters at stake by recalling the origins of the question of food safety in Europe, which date back to the so-called “Mad Cow” disease [also named “BSE”, bovine spongiform encephalopathy] of the early 1990s. This outbreak led European institutions to set up the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and, shortly  afterwards, to adopt the General Food Law. The moderator also remarked that the Commission proposed to amend this piece of legislation earlier this year.

The moderator then introduced the speakers and opened the debate by asking  them whether the EU is doing enough in terms of food safety. 

Mr Thilo Bode launched the debate by answering that the question needed to be put into context. Indeed, the speaker acknowledged that the General Food Law of 2002 was a response to the “Mad Cow” disease and that the introduction of this legislation was a valuable step towards the amelioration of the EU’s food safety policy given its preventive measures and the introduction of the precautionary principle. In addition, the speaker highlighted the higher EU standards introduced in terms of health protection, as well as the beneficial effects concerning the fight against fraud. 

However, Mr Bode stated that shortcomings and loopholes, as well as a lack of enforcement are undermining the original objectives of the General Food Law. According to the speaker, the state of play of food-safety-related policies in Europe is not satisfactory, in particular with regard to fraud and deceptive labelling. The speaker recalled recent food scandals, such as those involving “Horse Meat” [Horse meat mislabelled as beef, 2013], “Fipronil” [Chicken eggs contaminated by Fipronil insecticide, 2017] and “Lactalis” [Salmonella contamination of infant milk, 2018]. 

Consequentially, Mr Bode stated that there is a need for both more effective implementation of the right to information of consumers and the introduction of effective measures to hold governments and authorities to account in cases of non-compliance with legal obligations to provide information or ensuring the protection of consumer health.

Mr Michael Scannell replied to the question by disagreeing with the picture painted by Mr Bode regarding the current state of play of EU food policy and explained that the European Union has effectively improved its food safety and food safety risk assessment legislation and polices since the “Mad Cow” crisis. He added that the aim of European institutions has always been to ensure the highest food safety standards possibleby avoiding complacency to create a fit for purpose system. 

The speaker continued that the EU has become a model with regard to food safety standards and that Europe represents a global benchmark. Mr Scannell added that these features of EU food regulations and polices have been confirmed by meetings with third countries representatives, consumer associations and the food products industry.

Joanna Sullivan shortly summarised the opinions emerging from the debate and asked the speakers to further elaborate on their views.

Mr Bode expressed his surprise concerning the admiration of other countries for European food safety regulations and policy, as in his opinion, if carefully examined, this interpretation appears inaccurate. He took the example of the “Fipronil” case which highlighted that EU requirements concerning traceability were ineffective and that consumers were not informed of potential health risks in a timely manner. He also underlined that in Europe there is no legal requirement for public authorities to disclose information when an instance of fraud occurs, except in the case of potential risks to citizens’ health. As such, there were many examples of the non-disclosure of information to citizens during the “Horse Meat” scandal; an issue which remains partially unsolved. In addition, he pointed out that the above-mentioned instance revealed that traceability requirements are not properly enforced in many member states, as public authorities themselves admitted that they could not determine either from which production lines contaminated eggs had originated and which processed products contained contaminated eggs. As a result, Mr Bode concluded that there is surely room for improvement with regard to food safety policies in Europe. 

Acknowledging the occurrence of food scandals, such as “Lactalis”, “Horse Meat” or the “Dioxin crisis”, and recalling the words of Mr Bode on the need to contextualise the question of food safety, Mr Scannell stated that at the time media outlets reported the projected death toll from the “BSE crisis” would be half a million people. In this context, the efforts of former European Commission President, Romano Prodi, to introduce the General Food Law and to set up the EFSA – the EU’s independent food safety authority – were coupled with new enforcement structures, such as specific audit and inspection offices, a major review of all EU food-related legislation and a successful campaign to eradicate BSE. Mr Scannell continued, stating that while recent scandals are unfortunate setbacks, they should not discredit the European food safety system. With regard to the comparison made with the food safety standards of other countries around the world, Mr Scannell reminded that China’s new food safety laws are modelled on Europe’s system. He shared a selection of figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) on foodborne diseases worldwide, which indicate that while some 420.000 people die from foodborne diseases globally each year, only a very small fraction of these cases occur in Europe. The speaker added that these statistics demonstrate that European citizens are very well protected in terms of food safety. He then addressed the issue from the perspective of consumers and businesses by clarifying that food safety should not be considered a cost, but rather an investment. Indeed, food safety policies are essential not only to ensure a high level of protection for citizens, but also to provide a solid basis for our food industry to compete globally. Finally, Mr Scannell returned to the question of the lacking provision of information regarding health risks, explaining the functioning of the consumer portal, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), where notifications regarding food safety breaches are listed.

A first focal point of discussion consisted of the current challenges of food-safety-related policies.

Mr Bode answered by acknowledging that Europe has made effective progress after the “BSE crisis”, however he stated that the current state of play is not satisfactory if we consider the whole set of problems related to food policies, regulation and practices. He consequently remarked that the effectiveness of food policies could not be analysed in terms of deaths, as food risks are numerous and diverse. Indeed, important challenges have also emerged with regard to malnutrition, obesity and diabetes – health issues for which the food industry is in part responsible, claimed the speaker. Mr Bode continued, explaining that additives, bio-accumulative substances (for example, dioxins), high levels of pesticide residues, acrylamide and antibacterial resistance in livestock also need to be considered as serious risks to public health. The speaker advocated for a systematic application of the precautionary principle and for the obligation for public authorities to disclose information in cases beyond merely those regarded as public health risks. Mr Bode commented that the European Commission has not been ambitious enough in the revision of new food law legislation, highlighting that the food industry would be happy to maintain the status quo. The speaker concluded that EU member states responsible for food safety policy implementation should be put under further pressure by the Commission to achieve improvements in this area.

Mr Scannell started by accepting that fraud-related elements are not part of the current Commission proposal. There is existing regulation which provides a high level of protection and this can be improved. With regard to the obligation of public authorities to inform the public, Mr Scannell commented that fraud and food safety should be treated as two separate matters, as while food-related health risks often involve a fraud, fraud does not necessarily always imply a health risk. He continued by reaffirming that in cases concerning risks to human health, the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is efficient and that EU member states can take the necessary corrective measures with its assistance. The speaker then addressed the numerous issues listed by Mr Bode: on the topic of dioxins, he stated that the EU has taken several measures to reduce contamination and that there has been a sharp fall in the level of dioxins in food products over time. With regard to antimicrobial resistance, Mr Scannell highlighted that the use of antimicrobial substances as growth promoters in animal feed was banned by the EU in the 1990s on the grounds of the precautionary principle. In addition, the speaker explained that the ban was unsuccessfully challenged by the industry in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). On the contrary, he clarified that the ban of the use of hormones in beef production continues to be a priority for the European Commission, despite challenges in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). On the topic of acrylamide, which is naturally generated in the process of baking and frying food products and has a carcinogenic potential, Mr Scannell stated that the European Commission had investigated the matter. The only way to totally avoid this risk would be to ban the consumption of many baked or fried foods. He added that citizens may consider such action an unacceptable imposition on consumer choice by the EU.

A second focal point of the discussion was the question of deceptive labelling and consumer rights.

Mr Bode started his intervention by recalling the question of acrylamide, stating that since Foodwatch raised the issue some time ago lower standards regarding best practices have been accepted by public authorities across Europe. He specified that it is technically relatively straightforward to reduce acrylamide levels in food products. Mr Bode went on to explain that an informed consumer choice also needs to be enabled by tackling deceptive practices with regard to food labelling. (For example, it is possible to market a product as healthy even though it contains high sugar levels.) Mr Bode added that an overwhelming majority of opinion polls state that European consumers feel they do not have the opportunity to make well-informed decisions about the food products they purchase. The speaker added that this should alarm EU institutions and prompt action from the Commission. Mr Bode affirmed that given the progress made with regard to EU food legislation, the new frontline should be the right for consumers to sue the authorities and the industry if they do not comply with legal requirements. The speaker subsequently elaborated on the question of traceability, which has been a long-standing battleground for Foodwatch, and listed the fallacies about the state of play of the issue in Europe. Amongst others, the speaker underscored once more the difficulties involved in making public authorities and the industry accountable before the courts. Mr Bode concluded his intervention by stating that the European project needs to empower consumers to be able to provide themselves with a certain level of protection by making informed decisions regarding food purchases. For these reasons, he concluded by suggesting that the EU has missed a crucial window of opportunity to improve the General Food Law.

On the same set of questions, Mr Scannell recalled that the European Union operates according to both democratic principles and its own legal practices. Accordingly, the Commission proposed the Food Information to Consumers regulation, which passed through the Parliament and received the approval of the Council. This legislation, the speaker explained, was challenging to conclude as competitive and often opposite visions proved difficult to reconcile. Indeed, how to make a suitable amount of information available to avoid overburdening consumers and the industry alike has emerged as a major question. In addition, the speaker explained the risk of adopting inoperable legislation. Mr Scannell subsequently recalled that the food law already includes provisions to prohibit labelling which misleads consumers. In this light, the speaker recalled that the Commission conducted a fitness check of the General Food Law, which concluded that despite some setbacks it remains fit for purpose. Mr Scannell then stated that in face of past successes, improving food safety still represents an ongoing concern for the Commission. Indeed, by acknowledging that some of the concerns raised by Mr Bode are valid and that there remains scope for incremental improvement, Mr Scannell commented that other important issues persist within the food industry, such as acting ethically, supporting sustainability and protecting the environment; as well as considering animal welfare.

The other parts of the debate and the Q&A session covered the following issues: The role of consumers in food choices; the role of the EFSA; the nutritional value of products and the traffic light classification system for foods; the exclusion of nutrition from the original mandate of the EFSA; the education of future consumers on food composition and nutrition; the recent ban on some pesticides by the Commission; non-legislative mechanisms to provide information and the timing of reform in light of the 2019 European Parliament elections.