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The European Commission and Public Health - July 2015

Alyn Smith MEP

Commission must stop dragging its feet on Public Health.

Food quality has often been used as a political football. Torn between the ideals of consumers, the needs of farmers, and the reality of mass manufactured food; improving and protecting the food standards we have is one of the most emotive issues in politics. Within the general clamour of the protests about TTIP one of the most consistent concerns raised by constituents has been fear of lowering our standards to those in the US.

It is perhaps therefore ironic that only a week after the debacle of the postponed vote on TTIP the US took the lead in protecting consumers and left the EU trailing. Within the last month the US Food and Drug administration has ordered food companies to phase out using trans fats over the next three years. They concluded that they were a 'threat to public health' and have taken action. In Europe we should expect nothing less. What is a threat to public health in the US is a threat on this side of the Atlantic too. Trans fats, or to use their full title, industrially processed trans fatty acids (IPTFA), have been viewed with increasing hostility in the US in recent times. The new ban builds upon the 2006 New York City's Board of Health decision to prevent restaurants from using trans fats in their cooking. These are rational policy decisions, not the product of hysteria but based upon the scientific evidence available.

That body of evidence has become increasingly clear in recent times and shows how trans fats are having a hugely detrimental impact on Scottish and European lives. There is now a strong case linking the consumption of trans fats with increases in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The British Medical Association has emphasised the links between trans fats and cardiovascular disease whilst pointing out that reducing the level of trans fat consumption would be one of the most effective health policies to help improve health standards across Europe.

In Scotland this is key. The consumption of trans fats by those on lower incomes is commonly higher than the national average which continues to add to rising health inequality. Indeed, rates of cardiovascular disease are no longer falling amongst the most socially disadvantaged groups and this simple measure would help to alleviate this worrying situation. Not only this, Scotland has persistently had the highest rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease out the entirety of the UK. The existing voluntary framework in the EU is simply inadequate and needs overhauling. The problem now is that there seems to be little effort from the Commission to do so.

This begs the question, why is the Commission dragging its feet? Denmark, Austria and Hungary have already banned trans fats which has shown how this issue can be tackled. Unfortunately, however, this is not an issue that can simply be solved at a sub state or even member state level. UK government action would be welcome but as the recent horse meat scandal showed there are highly complex and interlinked supply chains that span the continent. To be effective we need action at an EU level which would cover the entire food chain. The USA has just done so, why not Europe?

Worryingly there is an indication that far from being proactive the Commission is actually being passive. A Commission report on trans fats that is to lay out the various options before the EU now appears to have been held up whilst it is finalised. As I understand, the report looks into a wide range of measures including labelling and provides recommendations about whether or not to restrict trans fat levels in food. I have asked the Commission directly what has happened to this report and when we can finally expect to see it.

Solving this problem will not fix health inequality but it will clearly help. The Commission needs to set the standards, not be left to play catch up. Europe and Scotland is rightly proud of its food quality standards but we cannot be complacent. We must remove trans fats from the food chain sooner rather than later.