14 January 2000

European Food Authority up & running by 02

By Philip Clarke

PLANS for a new European Food Authority were unveiled in Brussels this week, forming the central plank of the long-awaited food safety White Paper from consumer affairs commissioner, David Byrne.

If all goes according to schedule, the new body will be up and running by 2002.

"The proposals are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety," said Mr Byrne. "They are an essential prerequisite for Europe to have the highest possible standards."

Exactly what shape and form the new authority takes remains to be seen. Interested parties have until the end of April to comment.

But it is already clear it will not mirror the US Food and Drug Administration, as some had hoped, which has full powers to regulate.

"There is a serious concern that a transfer of regulatory powers to an independent authority could lead to an unwarranted dilution of democratic accountability," says the White Paper. "Legislation implies a political decision and involves judgements, not only based on science, but on a wider appreciation of the wishes and needs of society."

What seems more likely is that the new authority will more closely reflect the existing body, the European Medicines Evaluation Agency.

Its key tasks will be.

&#8226 To provide scientific advice to the EUs decision-making bodies, (covering primary food production, processing, storage and retailing).

&#8226 To monitor developments affecting food safety.

&#8226 To communicate with consumers on food safety issues.

&#8226 To operate a "rapid alert system" to deal with future food emergencies.

To achieve this, the authority will have to employ the best scientists and be truly independent, says the report. It must also set up links with other national food agencies and create a network of scientific contacts "to establish itself as the authoritative point of reference for consumers, the food industry, national authorities and on the wider world stage".

Reaction to the planned agency has been mostly positive. "Anything which bolsters public confidence in science-based decision-making has to be welcomed," said one UK government official in Brussels. "But the new authority should compliment existing member states agencies, not supersede them."

The Meat and Livestock Commission added that proper resourcing was essential if the authority was to have the necessary clout. "The current system has been groaning under the strain," said the MLCs Helene Judge. "The commissions scientific committees have been struggling to keep on top of the work load."

* The White Paper also sets out an action plan for streamlining legislation in the areas of animal welfare, feedingstuffs, residue limits, novel foods (including genetic modification), and product labelling.