Mixing food with politics does not make for a safer meal

Europe probably has the toughest food safety standards worldwide. New measures proposed by the European Commission are unlikely to make a measurable difference to safety, but they certainly will make the authorization of products and substances a lot more cumbersome.

The road from the laboratory to the plate risks getting longer still in Europe with proposals unveiled this week by the European Commission which will impact the food, food ingredient, additives and contact materials sectors.

The Commission says it wants to boost trust in scientific studies on food safety; in reality it has a broader agenda – “to deliver results for citizens before the European elections next year”, in the words of its VP Frans Timmermans.

The proposed revision to the General Food Law Regulation is motivated by the need to “give citizens greater access to information submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on approvals concerning the agri-food chain”.

As a simple citizen I have never bothered to consult the EFSA website for the latest on the application to renew a certain food additive, to download a study on the toxicology of some novel food or read the Authority’s full opinion on a specific flavour agent.

For a start, I would not understand any of it. Nor would more than 99% of my fellow citizens – or Mr Timmermans, I presume.

The Commission apparently hopes to appease activists like FoodWatch and has fallen for the argument, skillfully rolled out by NGOs in the glyphosate controversy, that the scientific evaluation of food products or substances used in food is intransparent and in the pockets of the industry.

One thing is certain: the process will become significantly more intricate, as this quick analysis of the main changes shows:

  • There will be a European register of all studies commissioned by industry, mainly to avoid applicants quoting only those that are favorable or neutral.
  • Studies will be made public. The Commission presents this as a milestone for the general public; in reality only people with the necessary expertise – some specialized NGOs, competitors or other experts – will be able to understand them. Submitting both a full and a non-confidential version of a study to EFSA will mean more work for applicants.
  • The Commission proposes a pre-submission procedure, by which EFSA can provide advice to an applicant and this advice will be made public. As a rare exception among the new arsenal, this could actually prove useful from an applicant’s perspective and prevent communication issues between EFSA and industry.
  • In the case of applications for renewals, the pre-submission procedure will, however, be heavier: studies planned by a potential applicant will have to be notified to EFSA and, after public consultation on these planned studies, the Authority will provide advice to the applicants. It remains to be seen whether this will be a help or a hindrance for the smooth working of the system.
  • There will be a mandatory consultation of third parties – stakeholders and “the public” – on all industry studies submitted as part of an approval process. The underlying idea seems to be that such scrutiny will allow to identify any other relevant scientific data or studies. This will slow down decision making and possibly lead to more controversies rather than fewer.
  • EFSA, on an initiative by the Commission, will be able to request additional studies on a substance subject to an approval procedure, to verify submitted evidence. The idea seems worthy – to seek clarity where existing studies are contradictory or don’t reach unambiguous conclusions, notably – one presumes – in highly controversial cases (glyphosate raises its head again!). Such studies would then be financed from the EU budget. But will additional data really provide the “silver bullet”, i.e. conclusive evidence?

Besides, this proposal touches upon two fundamental principles of the current EU food law:

  • Firstly, it is the responsibility of the applicant to prove that a product or substance is safe. If safety is demonstrated also by a study that isn’t financed by the industry, will this really sway opponents when the court of public opinion has already decided that the product should be banned?
  • Secondly, so far, there is a clear distinction between “risk assessment”, done by EFSA, and “risk management”, meaning the regulatory approval (or refusal) process managed by the Commission. EFSA provides an “opinion”, whereas the Commission then proposes, or takes, a decision. In practice, EFSA regularly requests additional data from applicants if the studies presented don’t satisfy the authority or don’t allow it to reach a clear-cut opinion about a substance’s safety. In future this clear distinction of the respective roles and competences will become murky.

 

All this will now be put to the Member States and the European Parliament for debate and approval. Whether the proposal’s ingredients remain as they are or get amended, only time will tell if this particular recipe for improving trust in the food supply chain is a success. Doubts are permitted: from a consumer perspective, nothing fundamentally changes in the current setting of already very stringent regulations. For industry, by contrast, matters risk becoming a lot more complex.