21 January 2000

Toothless watchdog it may be, but…

A new food standards authority for the

whole of Europe was unveiled last week,

intended to become fully operational in

just two years time. Europe editor,

Philip Clarke, considers the merits of

another Brussels watchdog

GREAT things are expected of the planned European Food Authority.

According to EU enterprise commissioner, Erkki Liikanen, the new body will "increase the quality of the everyday lives of Europeans" and will "boost the competitiveness of the European food industry".

Consumer affairs commissioner, David Byrne, is just as optimistic. "The proposals are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety. They are an essential prerequisite for Europe to have the highest possible standards in respect of food safety."

Such eulogising is not surprising. It is the job of politicians and civil servants to put a positive "spin" on new policy initiatives.

But equally, it is the job of journalists to try to unravel such spin. Certainly, there are good reasons to suspect that these high expectations may be misplaced.

Already it is clear that the new EFA will lack teeth. It has been made very clear in Brussels that its main role will be to provide scientific advice and to communicate with the public.

It will not be able to regulate, because of concerns about its accountability in a democratic society.

But without teeth, the EFA will have no powers to deal with rogue member states, who continue to disregard science-based decision-making. Just because the EUs scientific committees are to be housed under one roof, there is no reason to believe the French, or Germans for that matter, will take their opinions any more seriously.

Furthermore, politicians will continue to play as big a role as ever in the decision-making process. The White Paper admits as much. "Legislation involves judgements not only based on science, but on a wider appreciation of the wishes and needs of society," it says.

This is bound to dilute the extent to which "sound science" dictates future policy. The words "voter" and "appeal" spring to mind.

The limitations the EFA will face in decision-making also cast doubt on its ability to respond quickly in the event of a food scare. It will be able to disseminate information, but it wont be able to actually do anything.

But, as well as unravelling spin, journalists can be overly critical. There is, in fact, much to praise about the proposed food authority.

For a start, it can be argued that anything is better than the current arrangement in Brussels, with different committees answerable to different bosses, most of them ill-equipped to deal with an increasing workload. And anything which helps alleviate consumer paranoia when it comes to food safety has to be welcomed.

Whether it should have full regulatory power, akin to the US Food and Drug Administration, is also debatable. The FDA may be appropriate for a federation, but less so for a multi-cultural economic union.

And while sound science should certainly dominate the decision-making process, there is also a case for the "precautionary principle" to apply. Without it, the EU would already be awash with bovine somatotrophin, beef hormones and genetically modified crops.

It can also be argued that, if the EFA achieves the international status that its architects have in mind for it – "to become the automatic first port of call when scientific information on food safety is sought" – it will be more difficult for certain member states to ignore it.

But that reputation can only be achieved by proper funding. It must attract the best personnel, truly independent of commercial, national or political interests.

Above all, it must be transparent in its operation and speak the language of the common man if it is to achieve any of the great things expected of it.