In adopting a resolution on the Commission's White Paper on food safety by 461 to 12 with 9 abstentions, Parliament expressed its support for setting-up a European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to provide high quality scientific information to be used as a point of reference for the EU and the Member States.
Parliament believes the EFSA's remit should firstly be to assess risks in the field of food safety and to give scientific advice. It should also provide information to the public about its scientific conclusions and recommendations, although the Commission would remain responsible for explaining risk management decisions. The EFSA should play a key role in the existing Rapid Alert System, which should be improved and extended to cover all areas of food safety, including animal feed. The Director of the EFSA should be appointed by the Commission after a public hearing before the relevant Parliament committee. The EFSA, which should work in close cooperation with national food safety agencies, must be given powers to require Member States to provide such information, statistics and research reports in their possession as the EFSA Board may consider necessary to assess a particular risk.
Parliament wants traditional preparations for local foods, which have been proven not to be a health hazard to be allowed to continue through a licensing system. National agencies should coordinate a network of excellence for food safety with the aim of ensuring consistent monitoring of food quality throughout the food chain.
'We are what we eat', declared John BOWIS (EPP-ED, London) in presenting his report on Commission proposals to establish a European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). He recognised that there had been many problems in this area in the past and that risk could not be completely eliminated. Nevertheless it should be reduced as much as possible and, in order to achieve this, he welcomed proposals to establish the EFSA. The new body should be independent and transparent, he stressed. Parliament should have the powers to scrutinise its work and should receive an annual report from the new body. He also believed that the EFSA need to play a key role in the existing Rapid Alert System which should be improved and extended to cover all areas of food safety. The EFSA should have the role of assessing risk while the Commission managed and controlled the risk. The EFSA should also work in close cooperation with national and international food safety organisations. Mr Bowis concluded by stressing that these proposals were workable and he commended them to the House.
There was broad support from most speakers for the proposed establishment of the EFSA and for Mr Bowis's report. María del Pilar AYUSO GONZÁLEZ (EPP-ED, E) for the Agriculture Committee wanted the Commission in particular to state what it was doing to tackle the problem. There had to be consistent checks throughout the food chain, she stressed. Dorette CORBEY (PES, NL) for the Industry Committee also supported the measures and called for the problem to be tackled on a world-wide basis. Evelyne GEBHARDT (PES, D) for the Legal Affairs Committee called for the simplification of the legal framework on food safety.
Françoise GROSSETÊTE (EPP-ED, F) stressed the need for the EFSA to be independent of Member States and the EU institutions and the agro food industry. She also underlined the importance of effective risk assessment and the need to win back consumer confidence.
Phillip WHITEHEAD (PES, East Midlands) reminded the House that this week the BSE inquiry report was being issued. This provided a stark reminder of the need for effective measures on food safety, he said. He stressed in particular the amendment to the Commission proposal that would change the title of the EFSA to a European Food Safety Authority. This, he said, would demonstrate that it was a body with power. He wanted to see the full involvement of national food safety agencies. Mr Whitehead also called for the EFSA to present an annual report to the House and for its director to come to Parliament on a regular basis. Finally, he stressed that the Commission needed to come forward with legislation in other areas of food safety.
Marit PAULSEN (ELDR, S) was also supportive and stressed the need for full compliance with the rules. Bart STAES (Greens/EFA, B) emphasised that this was just a beginning as there was a long path to follow. Mihail PAPAYANNAKIS (EUL/NGL, GR) stressed the need to monitor the need to monitor food coming into the EU from the outside and argued that there had been too much secrecy in the past.
Nicole THOMAS-MAURO (UEN, F) struck a different note, arguing that it should be left to Member States to manage risk as they were in the best position to carry out local checks. There could not be a uniform approach to food production, she said, as the diversities in Europe should be welcomed.
Nigel FARAGE (EDD, South East) noted that a food agency had already been established in the UK this year. This would now be merged into a European structure to which it would be subordinate, he said. Nevertheless he did support a pan-European agency as he recognised that germs had no boundaries. However he believed that to be effective, any programme must extend beyond the 15 Member States. He commended the work of the World Health Organisation which had a much wider remit. Mr Farage noted that most diseases started in the Americas and that any new agency must have a global reach. In conclusion, he argued that the vital issue of food safety should not be another reason for further European integration.
Liam HYLAND (UEN, Leinster) emphasised the importance of legislating in the food safety area at a European level in view of the need to reassure consumers across the EU and resist any threats to the integrity of the CAP. It was essential to maintain free trade in food products across Europe and a new European Food Authority could help restore consumer confidence. He also felt it was a mistake to reject biotechnology and GM foods out of hand but did support labelling and extensive testing of any new GM products.
Roger HELMER (EPP-ED, East Midlands) had a strongly sceptical attitude towards the whole idea of a food authority. There were already national health agencies as well as the WHO, he argued, he believed that the EFSA would largely duplicate the work of these bodies and that its role would be one of principally public relations. He believed that there were finite resources and that money could be better spent on such areas as cancer research or road safety. If the EFSA had to be established however, he argued, it should coordinate the work of other agencies in this field and its seat should not be in 'Barcelona or Helsinki' or indeed any other European city. It should be on the Internet with its officials working from their home countries.
Replying to the debate, Commissioner David BYRNE emphasised the important role the new Food Authority would play in helping the Commission to draft legislation by becoming a centre of 'scientific excellence'. It would form a central plank in the Commission's new food policy strategy to update existing food health and safety standards, which would include special provisions for locally produced food, with proposals coming forward next year with a view to the new body being in place in 2001.
He undertook to take 'maximum account' of Parliament's views as expressed in amendments and promised a full role for Parliament through the application of the codecision procedure.