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EP flexes its democratic muscle in "mad cow" crisis

 

pf0801.jpg (20742 bytes)To the extent that the battle against "mad cow" disease in Europe is making headway, it is widely acknowledged - even by the European Commission, whose inadequacy at the start of the crisis led Parliament to threaten its dismissal - that this is due in no small measure to the determined efforts of the European Parliament. The annual incidence of the disease fell by 90% between 1992 and 1997, although a report adopted by Parliament this April pointed out that the crisis had still not been dealt with and that further cases could be expected (the UK and Portugal being singled out for special mention in this connection). However, without Parliament's involvement, which galvanized the Commission into action, the epidemic would certainly have been even worse. The crisis also highlighted the protection afforded to Europe's citizens by Parliament's right under the Maastricht Treaty to set up committees of inquiry into alleged contraventions or maladministration in the application of Community law, summoning witnesses regardless of rank to justify their actions at the bar of the Union's only democratically elected body.

The scale of the crisis was breath-taking. Its cost has been estimated at over EUR 4.25 billion. At the peak of the crisis in 1996 beef consumption plummeted by 7.4%. By last autumn around 176 000 cases of "mad cow" disease or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) had been confirmed, involving 10 Member States, although in some countries just one animal was involved and some of the cases related to animals which had been imported. In fact, the figures elsewhere are infinitesimal compared with the numbers involved at the epicentre of the crisis in the UK, where no fewer than 2.35 million cattle were slaughtered as a precautionary measure since the epidemic peaked in 1996. By the turn of the year a total of 32 people had developed a new variant of CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) as a possible result of eating BSE-infected meat. Further cases cannot be ruled out.

EP recommends "precautionary principle"

As a result of parliamentary pressure, it is now widely accepted that, so far as food is concerned, consumer protection should not play second fiddle to producer interests and that quality, as opposed to quantitity, should have a much higher profile, even if this means higher prices. The recently adopted Directive to extend producer liability to cover primary agricultural products is a direct reflection of Parliament's priorities. Moreover, Parliament's concern is not limited to BSE: in the past ten years many more of Europe's citizens have died from salmonella, e-coli and listeria than from BSE and the EP has also responded to popular anxiety over the use of antibiotics, hormones and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food production. Its overriding intention has been to ensure that farmers and the food industry are encouraged to provide consumers with food which is healthy and safe to eat. Hence, while Parliament is by no means opposed to farming innovations that are of benefit to farmers and consumers (including the expansion of organic farming), it has become a firm advocate of the "precautionary principle" or "when in doubt, leave out".

Ironically, the whole crisis might have been avoided had adequate attention been given to Parliament's demands in the early 1990s for Community measures to guarantee that food was safe. As early as June 1990 the EP recommended stricter controls throughout the Union as well as inspections to curb epizootic diseases. In January 1993 it also called for binding regulations on the conditions under which animal feed is manufactured, with special emphasis on methods of sterilization.

 


Food safety responsibility separated from agricultural promotion

Following a Commission ban on UK beef exports in March 1996, in July Parliament set up a temporary committee of inquiry into BSE. After interviewing political and expert witnesses and sending a fact-finding mission to the UK, the committee found that various authorities had been party to a conspiracy of silence over BSE in the early 1990s. It submitted a report (with recommendations for remedial action), which Parliament endorsed in February 1997. In April 1997 the EP decided to set up a second, follow-up committee to monitor the Commission's response to these recommendations. In November 1997 Parliament endorsed the follow-up committee's report, which, broadly speaking, approved the remedial action taken by the Commission. This included a complete reorganization of the Commission services responsible for food safety, including the transfer of the Commission veterinary service from the department responsible for agriculture to that charged with protecting consumers' health. This chimed with Parliament's desire that responsibility for food safety must be kept separate from agricultural promotion and the food industry. What is more, in line with Parliament's call for greater openness, the reports produced by the Commission veterinary service are to be published on the Internet. A Scientific Steering Committee was also established within the Commission's consumer protection department to coordinate the work of the eight new scientific committees monitoring food safety and to ensure that in future the scientists involved would not be subject to political interference, as had been the case hitherto (according to the committee's findings).

The Member States, by contrast, have been severely criticized by MEPs for obstruction and foot- dragging. Legal action was started against 13 of the 15 Member States for Treaty violations in connection with BSE. Late last year Member States were still holding up urgent measures proposed by the Commission to eliminate specified risk materials (such as head, spleen and spinal cord) from the food chain.

Need to restore consumer confidence

Parliament has recognized that the need to to restore consumer confidence in European food production is the key imperative if BSE is to be overcome. Hence policy decisions must be based on science and a full flow of information to consumers is essential as it is consumer perception that drives consumer confidence. Those in industry should know that they will be held accountable for what they produce. Consumers and their representatives should be involved throughout the food production chain and also in the work of the Commission's scientific committees. Government data banks should be opened to scientists. Moreover, in order to ensure food safety in Europe it is essential that not only food originating within the Union but also imported food be produced and marketed in accordance with European or equivalent standards. In response to demands by MEPs that help be given to nvCJD victims, a small amount of financial assistance (ECU 30 000) was made available through the Union's 1998 budget to victim support groups. MEPs have also been concerned at the plight of farmers whose incomes have been cut as a result of the BSE crisis.

Without the European Parliament's persistent questioning much of what we know now about BSE might still not have come to light, urgent remedial action would not have been taken, and it is quite possible that the epidemic would still be ravaging unchecked. There can be no doubt that the new Parliament to be elected in June 1999 will continue to give priority to the Treaty obligation requiring a high level of protection for consumers and human health. In a debate on BSE in Parliament this April, a warning was given that Parliament has every intention of keeping up the pressure on the new Commission that is shortly to be appointed.

Further information: Patrick Reynolds - tel. 284 4706 or email preynolds@europarl.eu.int

 

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