Will under-funding affect the EFSA?

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Related tags: Food safety, European union, European food safety authority

A recent decision to cut the European Food Safety Authority's
budget by half is worrying many food industry experts. A food and
life sciences lawyer airs his concerns on the matter and throws
some light on the effects for the industry.

The birth of the European Food Safety Authority has been eagerly followed by players in the food industry. But recent news on the Parliament decision to cut half of the EFSA budget, and the fact that the Authority still lacks a location, has disappointed many. In this article, Raymond O'Rourke​, food and life sciences lawyer at Mason Hayes & Curran, shares his concerns with us. Is the EFSA in peril?

This month Commissioner David Byrne introduced tough new measures which for the first time will require EU Member States to draw up a list of criminal sanctions for a wide range of offences such as selling food with banned or unsafe levels of additives, hormones or pesticides; failing to notify contagious animal or shellfish diseases or slaughtering animals for meat without an official inspection.

These new rules are commendable and are aimed at boosting consumer confidence in the food they purchase. Unfortunately, Commissioner Byrne's initiative masks the fact that the idea of establishing a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which he launched with much fanfare over two years ago is now in peril because of the actions of the European Parliament and Member States.

The core task of the European Food Safety Authority, as yet without a permanent home, is to provide independent scientific advice in Europe on all matters with a direct or indirect impact on food safety. Although the EFSA has appointed an Executive Director, a Management Board and an interim Advisory Forum (composed of representatives of National Food Agencies in the Member States) it is still operating in an 'interim' fashion.

At the Laeken summit [December 2001], the Member States failed to agree on a location for the EFSA due to a stand-off between Helsinki (Finland) and Parma (Italy) as a suitable site. Unfortunately, while the EFSA was seen as crucial to the EU's plans to radically transform the regulatory regime for foodstuffs following a number of food crises such as BSE and Dioxin contamination, it was incorrectly seen at Laeken as a 'prize' for a certain Member State, rather than a body aimed at enhancing consumer confidence and food safety.

The Member States have failed at subsequent summits to even add this issue as an item to their agenda for decision. The Danish and Greeks have failed to make it a priority matter to be solved during their Presidency of the EU Council. Member States promised consumers to make food safety a priority issue for the EU. It seems those sentiments were merely 'empty promises'.

The European Parliament has also placed obstacles in the way of the full establishment of the EFSA. From being a strong advocate of the Authority, the Parliament in December 2002 has begun to 'play politics' with the budget for the EFSA. The Commission had requested a budget of €16.5m for 2003 [its first year of operation], but the Parliament decided to give the Authority only half of this budget keeping the remainder in 'reserve' until the Member States decide on a permanent location for the Authority and the Parliament has given its views on the work plan of the EFSA for 2003.

Half the allotted budget for the EFSA is insufficient for it to properly discharge all the responsibilities envisaged for the new Authority. There is no evidence so far that the Member States have taken note of the Parliament's concerns regarding a location, therefore the Parliament may inadvertently be stifling the Authority at birth, an unusual position for an institution that prides itself on representing the interest of consumers.

The major food safety issue in 2003 will be the enlargement of the European Union. Food safety is a major challenge in the context of accession negotiations. The EU is particularly concerned that sub-standard food products from third countries might find their way onto the EU market due to the fact that certain Central and Eastern European countries have inadequate border inspection posts. Allied to that is the concern that the food safety control systems existing in some of the Accession countries at present are inadequate. Yet, it seems the EU institutions are prepared to face this challenge without an adequately resourced and structured European Food Safety Authority.

In March 2000 at Dublin Castle, Niall Fitzgerald, chairman of Unilever, said that the cost of the European Food Safety Authority should be seen as an investment to prevent the damage of future food safety crises.

"I hope that Member States will be prepared to fund the necessary resources. If not, it will be difficult for national and European politicians to live up to their earlier commitments to restore public confidence in food."

The EU Council and European Parliament should heed his words - the EFSA is very much at the 'developmental' stage but the recent actions of the Council and Parliament certainly do not demonstrate that those EU institutions are prioritising food safety as they once promised.

Installing the European Food Safety Authority was a clear sign from Europe that it would sincerely tackle the increasing food safety issues of the day. Food safety is not just about introducing more and more legislation, it is also about aligning that legislation with an adequate EU-wide institution aimed at providing the EU institutions with the best available scientific advice. The EU Council and European Parliament must act now to demonstrate their continued interest in consumer protection and food safety before the next food crisis emerges.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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