EU Commission launches food safety initiative

"Radical" proposals to create central food agency, GM food responsibility to be shifted

The European Commission today announced plans for a huge shake-up in the way food safety issues are treated in the EU, including the creation of a central food safety agency from 2002. EU health and consumer commissioner David Byrne takes control of genetically modified (GM) food dossiers previously held by industry commissioner Erkki Liikanen. The key "horizontal" directive on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment are retained by environment commissioner Margot Wallström.

The EU white paper is a response to food scares such as those caused by BSE, dioxin residues in food and sewage sludge in animal feeds. Mr Byrne says the package is "the most radical and far-reaching ever presented" and will introduce a "coherent" body of law governing food "from farm to table."

A "European food authority" will overcome the "many weaknesses" inherent in current fragmented food control structures, the document says. The body will coordinate and communicate scientific research and make risk assessments, using the precautionary principle "where appropriate". A Commission paper setting out its interpretation of the principle has been finalised and will be present later this month, Mr Byrne said.

The authority will assume the functions of the five Commission committees dealing with food safety and will develop a rapid alert system to deal with emerging crises. But, unlike the USA's food and drug administration, the body will not have risk management or legislative functions. These will remain with the Commission, European Parliament and member states.

Environmental and consumer groups will be cheered by Mr Byrne's announcement that he has taken on responsibility for GM food regulation and labelling, as they consider his directorate keener on stricter regulation. However, the commissioner said there were no plans to revise the labelling strategy devised by Mr Liikanen (see separate article). Officials also confirmed that the only other GM labelling initiative currently being considered was a "GM-free" designation.

However, Mr Byrne said he was "not fully impressed" with the EU's organisation of GM food dossiers, and that he was chairing a committee of commissioners to ensure that future directives on GM seeds and GMOs in animal feeds dovetailed better with existing laws. A new law will require the central authorisation of GMOs for use in feeds.

Other measures foreseen in the white paper include laws to set maximum levels of dioxins and PCBs in foods and feeds, and to set maximum residue levels in foods for eight new pesticides.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111. White paper on food safety, COM (1999)719.

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