The European Commission opened the new Millennium with an announcement about an issue that has preoccupied it for the last few years of the 20th Century. Food safety has been put at the top of the agenda for European policymakers and the effects of this on EU member states and EU trading partners will be apparent sooner rather than later.

First, just before Christmas, came leaks in the press about the Commission’s policy paper on the “precautionary principle”. The rumour circulated that preventative action against suspect foods or ingredients will be authorised by the Commission where scientific evidence is “insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain”. A cynic would argue that very little is certain in science these days so that leaves the EU with lots of scope to implement a ban on “suspect foods”. The French Government has used just this principle to justify its continuing ban on British beef even though the scientists have pronounced UK-sourced beef to be safe. Later this month the Commission is due to adopt a communication on the precautionary principle as part of a new legislative approach to food safety and this will formally enshrine the attitude of Europe towards current and future difficult areas debate about the acceptability of certain food and food ingredients.

More recently, last week, the Commission announced, with due fanfare, that it would be creating an independent European Food Authority by 2002. It is putting food safety at the top of its agenda. The Commission declared that it wanted to guarantee that EU foodstuffs met the highest level of consumer protection. The new food authority will be expected to evaluate food risks through the use of scientific committees, transmit information on scientific developments, and to act as an early warning system by linking with existing national food agencies.

This is a tall order. Two years is not a long time in Europe and there will be many a slip before this particular idea gets final approval at the Council of Ministers. The possibilities for argument about the structure and powers of the new European Food Authority are significant. The Commission has recognised this and has indicated that the authority will not have any responsibility for risk management. That will remain with the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. The politicians will still have something to do it seems and the men in white coats will not be allowed the power to make final decisions on what may or may not be good for consumers. This differs from the US approach as expressed by the American Food and Drug Administration and gets right to the heart of the difference between the old and new world on this subject. Ultimately, the Europeans do not trust the scientists to make decisions for them.

The European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Safety, David Byrne, said that the new independent food authority would be located centrally in Europe (not in one of the smaller countries in the periphery) and would be staffed by eminent scientists. Furthermore, it would be financed form EU money to avoid any question about its independence. As part of the new legal framework that the Commission is considering for food safety, an integrated “farm to table” approach will be followed – including animal feedstuffs. This legal framework may introduce product liability to farmers for the first time because all elements of the food chain will be made responsible for the production of safe foodstuffs through traceability, risk analysis, and application of the precautionary principle.

Where does this leave the food industry and their raw material suppliers, farmers from all over the world? With no choice, I would suggest. The Commission has decided that food safety is a must and the overwhelming momentum of the Commission’s decision process will surely deliver what has been asked for. Who will gainsay the Commission? No-one.

And who will pay for all this? Not the European taxpayer I would suggest, despite the public assurances to the contrary this week. The costs of the scientists and their offices are not the major cost issue anyway, it’s the costs of regulation and traceability through the food chain that will be the major cost items – and the weakest members of the food chain will pay for these. That probably means the farmers and it will certainly not be the retailers. But that wasn’t on the Commission’s mind this week.

Happy New Year!

Dr John Strak, Euro-PA