|Dioxin in chicken, hormones in beef, BSE, foot-and-mouth disease - a spate of food scares in recent years has made food health and safety a major issue for Europe's consumers. These scares recognise no frontiers, so public pressure has mounted for Europe-wide measures to nip them in the bud and to raise general standards of labelling and inspections. The EU has responded with a raft of food safety legislation. MEPs strongly backed many of these measures, such as a ban on using hormones in stockfarming, while tightening up others, such as the rules on food additives and the labelling of meat products.
The food we eat is less exposed to certain risks than in the past, thanks to pasteurisation and higher standards of hygiene, but intensive farming methods bring their own health dangers. In addition, ever more people are suffering from food allergies. Against this backcloth, the EU has embarked on a major drive to raise health and hygiene standards throughout the food chain. Food safety was in fact laid down as one of the European Commission's top policy priorities early in its current term. MEPs have been deeply involved in the ensuing stream of legislation, as EU food safety laws cannot be adopted without Parliament's approval under the co-decision procedure.
A range of worries - from mad cow disease to antibiotics and hormones
The outbreak in the 1990s of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), otherwise known as mad cow disease, was followed by the discovery that sheep had been infected through feeding on BSE-contaminated material. This prompted the Commission to propose tighter controls on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) of any kind, in all animals and animal products. Parliament included in the legislation a requirement for rapid diagnostic tests in suspected TSE cases. It also lent its support to a complete ban on feeding animals with meat-and-bone meal (made from the left-overs of animal carcasses). This legislation has applied in all Member States since July 2001.
Another problem is antibiotics, which are used in intensive stockfarming - partly for disease control, which is perfectly legal, but partly as growth enhancers, which is illegal. Moreover, their widespread use in human medicine and farming is leading to the emergence of highly-resistant "super-bugs". MEPs therefore gave their backing in 2001 to new EU guidelines on the use of antimicrobial agents in human medicine, although they would have preferred them to go further and include veterinary medicine and plant health.
The presence in meat of hormones and similar substances also arouses public anxiety. These products are mainly used to promote growth in farm animals but can then enter the food chain, posing particular risks to prepubertal children by causing developmental, immunological and neurological effects. Because Europe imports so much food, any ban on these substances has to comply with world trade rules and as a result the EU was forced in 2000 to review its legislation on this matter. The Commission proposed continuing the ban on using several such substances in stockfarming until more complete scientific information is available. Parliament strongly backed this stance and successfully pushed for even tighter restrictions on using one substance, oestradiol 17 beta, on the grounds that it is carcinogenic.
Food allergies - a growing problem
Food allergies affect around 8% of children and 3% of adults, with the numbers steadily rising. They can cause conditions ranging from mild to fatal. Common allergies include cow’s milk, fruit, peanuts, soya beans, eggs, fish, wheat and other cereals. And if labels on food products do not list all the ingredients and additives, allergy sufferers have no way of knowing whether the food is safe for them to eat. Compound ingredients can be a particular problem if their components are not described in full.
In July 2003, Parliament approved an update to the EU legislation on food labelling aimed at listing the components of compound ingredients more clearly. Following pressure from MEPs, the information to be shown on food labels will be more complete: exemptions to the listing requirements will be allowed only if an ingredient makes up less than 2% of the finished product, and celery and mustard have been added to the allergenic substances that must be listed on labels.
Stricter labelling and inspections
Better labelling and inspections are crucial to many aspects of food safety. For example 'traceability' is all the rage these days and tighter labelling rules for beef have been introduced by an EU law setting up a system for identifying cattle slaughtered since September 2000. Labels must now enable consumers to trace the meat back to the original animals and slaughterhouses. MEPs ensured that the place of birth and rearing of the animal is also clearly indicated on the label and that the labelling rules for minced beef are stricter than originally proposed.
A regulation on safety, labelling and inspections of food and animal feed, including imports from non-EU countries, was adopted by Parliament in March 2004. Thanks to MEPs, inspectors will be allowed to make spot checks; they must also take account of animal welfare and health in their inspections; governments must introduce effective and dissuasive criminal penalties for breaches of the law; and, as regards the confidentiality of food inspections, Parliament swung the balance towards greater transparency so the public has quicker access to information held by the authorities. The legislation will apply from January 2006.
In the same month, Parliament gave its verdict on a legislative package updating technical EU rules on food hygiene and safety inspections. The aim is to tidy up the rules - particularly on meat - and make them more science-based and more risk-based. MEPs have welcomed the legislation but are pushing for small businesses to be given greater flexibility in inspections. On the other hand, they believe the right for slaughterhouse staff to perform inspections themselves should be limited to only two categories of meat: poultry and rabbit. However, Parliament will probably have to negotiate on these points with Council and Commission before the legislation can be finalised.
European Food Safety Authority
A cornerstone of EU food safety policy from now on will be the European Food Safety Authority, set up in 2003. The role of EFSA is to provide independent scientific and technical advice to underpin EU policy and legislation on food safety, to give early warning of food health risks and to keep the public informed about food safety issues.
Parliament was a strong supporter of this body from the outset but it was MEPs who insisted that its title should include the word "safety", to emphasise this side of its work. Parliament also ensured that four of the 14 members of the Management Board must have a background in consumer and other food-related organisations. In December 2003 it was decided that the Authority should move from its temporary base in Brussels to a permanent home in Parma, Italy.
N.B. Foot-and-mouth disease and Genetically modified organisms are the subject of other notes in this series, the former in the note on Temporary Committees of the European Parliament.