The announcement in March 1996 of research findings linking BSE to the human disease CJD (Creutzfeldt Jacob disease) marked the first in the series of highly publicised consumer health crises within the food industry. Following cases involving dioxin poisoned poultry and the safety issue over GMOs have exposed deficiencies in existing EU legislation that have led to a drive by the commission to rethink the necessary guidelines and legislation that will ensure the highest level of health protection for consumers.

The result of these crises has been the erosion of consumer confidence and trust in the systems and institutions at National, and European levels that should monitor and ensure the highest standards of food safety. European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne called the shopping trolley “one of the most potent weapons on the face of the earth”, meaning that damaged consumer confidence is immediately reflected in their shopping decisions which in turn has a chain reaction on the entire industry. In an industry worth 600 billion euros annually in the European Union (about 15% of total manufacturing output) even a slight dip in confidence can have significant effects.

The commission’s proposals to redress the situation and set an agenda for change have culminated in the launch of The White Paper on Food Safety. The White Paper, as a directive on general food law sets the agenda for a succession of legislation making existing EU legislation on food health and safety more coherent, flexible and understandable.

The White Paper on Food Safety
The central goal of the European Commission is the achievement of the highest possible level of health protection for the consumers of Europe’s food. The White Paper sets out a radical reform plan: a major programme of legislative reform is proposed to complete the EU’s “farm to table” approach as well as the establishment of a new European Food Authority. It represents the culmination of three months extensive work by the Commission since its appointment last September and builds on the consultation arising from the Commission’s Green Paper on Food Law published in 1997. The guiding principle throughout the White Paper is that food safety policy must be based on a comprehensive, integrated approach.

Commenting on the launch, David Byrne said “This is a major initiative designed to promote the health of Europe’s consumers by the establishment of world class food safety standards and systems. The proposals in the White Paper on Food Safety are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety. The success of the measures proposed in this White Paper is intrinsically linked to the support of the European Parliament and the Council. Their implementation will depend on the commitment of the Member States. This White Paper also calls for strong involvement of the operators, who bear the prime responsibility for the daily application of the requirements for food safety.

1. A European Food Authority
The White Paper envisages the establishment of a European Food Authority based on the principles of the highest levels of independence, of scientific excellence and of transparency in its operations. Therefore the Authority must be guided by the best science, be independent of industrial and political interests, be open to rigorous public scrutiny, be scientifically authoritative and work closely with national scientific bodies.

The White Paper clearly identifies many weaknesses in the present system which it envisages would be addressed in the context of establishing a European Food Authority. Among the weaknesses identified are, lack of scientific support for the system of scientific advice, inadequacies in monitoring and surveillance on food safety issues, gaps in the rapid alert system and lack of coordination of scientific cooperation and analytical support.
The tasks of the authority will essentially concentrate on risk assessment and risk communication. Risk management, -including legislation and control, should remain the responsibility of the European institutions which are accountable to the European public. However, future extension of the competencies of the Authority should not be discounted in the light of experience of the Authority’s operation, confidence gained, and the possible need to change the Treaty.

A 1998 survey showed that 86% of European consumer demand labelling of GMO food

It is envisaged that the tasks of the Authority will comprise:
Establishment of risk assessments through scientific advice:
The scope of issues will include all matters having a direct or indirect impact on consumer health and safety arising from the consumption of food. Thus it will cover primary food production (agricultural and veterinary aspects), industrial processes, storage, distribution and retailing. Its remit will encompass both risk and nutritional issues. The Authority will also cover animal health and welfare issues, and will take into consideration risk assessments in other areas, notably the environmental and chemical sectors where these overlap with risk assessment in relation to food. The work currently carried out by the five Scientific Committees concerned with food safety will be a core part of the new Authority. However, the current system of the organisation of the EU’s Scientific Committees will be reviewed in the light of decisions taken about the structure of the Authority after consultations and detailed feasibility studies.

Information gathering and analysis: There is a pressing need to identify and use the information currently available throughout both the Community and world-wide on food safety issues. The Authority will be expected to take a proactive role in developing and operating food safety monitoring and surveillance programmes. It will need to establish a network of contacts with similar agencies, laboratories and consumer groups across the European Union and in third countries.

Communication: The Authority will need to make special provision for informing all interested parties of its findings, not only in respect of the scientific opinions, but also in relation to the results of its monitoring and surveillance programmes. The Authority must become the automatic first port of call when scientific information on food safety and nutritional issues is sought or problems have been identified. A highly visible Authority with strong pro active presence on food safety matters will be a key element in restoring and maintaining confidence among European consumers.

Rapid Alert: The White Paper foresees that the Authority would operate the rapid alert system. The rapid alert system will be significantly strengthened as part of this process and will include rapid alert for animal feed problems.

The White Paper is not prescriptive about all of the details concerning a Food Authority at the European level, and the Commission, therefore, has not yet proposed concrete resource figures for the Authority. However, it is clear that the efficacy of the Authority will ultimately depend on the adequacy, in terms of both size and quality, of the human, financial and physical resources allocated. It is also implicit that the location of the Authority should allow it to interact easily with all players in the risk analysis process.

It is envisaged that the Authority should be in place by 2002 once the necessary legislation has been enacted.

2. Food Safety Legislation
The White Paper proposes an action plan with a wide range of measures to improve and bring coherence to the Community’s legislation covering all aspects of food products from “farm to table”. It sets out over 80 separate actions that are envisaged over the period ahead and intends to close identified loopholes in current legislation. The new legal framework will cover animal feed, animal health and welfare, hygiene, contaminants and residues, novel food, additives, flavourings, packaging and irradiation. It will include a proposal on General Food Law which will embody the principles of food safety such as responsibility of feed manufacturers, farmers and food operators, traceability of feed, food and its ingredients, proper risk analysis through a) risk assessment (scientific advice and information analysis), b) risk management (regulation and control) and c) risk communication, and the application of the precautionary principle if appropriate.

Proposals also set up alert system for animal feed

3. Control of implementation of legislation
A comprehensive piece of legislation is proposed in order to recast the different control requirements. This will take into account the general principle that all parts of the food production chain must be subject to official controls. There is a clear need or a Community framework of national control systems, which will improve the quality of controls at Community level, and consequently raise food safety standards across the European Union. The operation of such control systems would remain a national responsibility. This Community framework would have three core elements.

  • Operational criteria set up at Community level

  • Community control guidelines

  • enhanced administrative co-operation in the development and operation of control.

    Development of this overall Community framework for national control systems would clearly be a task for the Commission and the Member States working together. The experience of the EU’s Food and Veterinary Office (Dublin), which exercises the control functions at Community level, will be an essential element in its development.

    4. Consumer Information
    If consumers are to be satisfied that the action proposed in the White Paper is leading to a genuine improvement in food safety standards, they must be kept well informed. The Commission, together with the new European Food Authority, will promote a dialogue with consumers to encourage their involvement in the new Food Safety policy. At the same time, consumers need to be kept better informed of emerging food safety concerns, and of risks to certain groups from particular foods. Proposals on the labelling of foods, building on existing rules, will be brought forward.

    5. International dimension
    The Community is the world’s largest importer/exporter of food products. The actions proposed in the White Paper will need to be effectively presented and explained to our trading partners. An active role for the Community in international bodies will be an important element in explaining European developments in food safety.

    In conclusion the three main goals of the White Paper are:

  • a comprehensive re-casting of and modernisation of the regulatory framework, in order to make European legislation coherent, understandable and flexible

  • the promotion of better enforcement from farm to table

  • the creation of a European Food Authority for scientific advice in the food area.

    In view of the actions outlined in the White Paper, the commission will also be reviewing a broad range of legislation including proposals to make animal feed even safer, fixing levels of pesticide residues found in food, regulating the labelling of GMO foodstuffs and monitoring systems for zoonoses. These reforms will affect all areas of the food chain from the ‘plough to the plate’ and will aim to restore consumer confidence what is perhaps the most important ingredient in their food, ‘safety’.